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A Complete Novelette

by J. Allan Dunn

Author of "Death's Carpenter," "The Pearls of Paruki," etc.


THE puzzling, intermittent flashes came again, distinctly, as Neill McNeill, with his back to the sun that was just lifting above the horizon that rimmed the golden-brown desert, gazed with a troubled forehead at the spot where the phenomenon had appeared. He did not like it, he told himself, even while he strove to find some natural explanation for the dazzling streaks that came, irregularly enough, yet with a precision that hinted at some systematic method of production, flickering like miniature lightning from the low western hills whence their little caravan had recently emerged.

It might be caused, he thought, by the level rays of the rising sun shot back from the shoulder of a ledge heavily flaked with mica, shifting from the various facets with the changing angle of the golden beams, but he had not noticed any indications of mica in those sandstone hills and he was apt to notice such things. It was his business as a professional traveler and adventurer to do so.

Another series of the flashes started and flickered out, and McNeill shook his head slightly.

"I'm hanged if I like it," he said just above his breath. "Looks as if some one were signaling in Morse, though if it were Morse I could read it; it may be a Chinese code at that. If so, who are they talking to? There's something fishy about this hurried return trip. The old boy was in too much of a hurry to get back to Peking and—I wonder!"

His gaze wandered over the sleeping camp. Two mangy camels, sulky even in their sleep, lay with their heads stretched out on snaky necks. A dozen pack and saddle horses, dwarfed and shaggy, stood dejectedly about at the end of their pickets.

By the side of his own dog-tent was the humped canvas where Howard Remsden snored on one side of a primitive screen while, on the other, his stepdaughter, Helen, slumbered far more gracefully and easily. Spoked out around the ashes of last night's lire sprawled half a dozen Mongols. As McNeill looked keenly at these, counting them, first one and then another writhed and twisted in the sleep that was already beginning to be disturbed by the sun. There had been a long trek the night before, and man and beast had been exhausted before the dry camp had been pitched.

Suddenly McNeill gave vent to a short exclamation and swiftly, silently passed over the sand, soft and fine as ashes, closer to the fire and the sprawling Mongols. His lips parted in a smile as he peered closely at the nearest figure—lifeless, a huddle of clothes and dirty sheepskin.

"Neat trick that," he told himself. "Slipped out of his duds. Now then——"

His practised eyes easily picked up the trail of sandal-prints that led from the group, over low waves of sand that so blended in the strong, level light as to give a false suggestion of flatness.

His hand dropped to an automatic, holstered at his right hip, as he swiftly crouched to a kneeling position, one hand supporting him, the other on the grip of his gun, while he stretched his neck and looked over the crest of a shady billow.

His dark blue eyes matched the hue of the steel of the pistol, gleaming, through narrowed lids at the almost naked figure that squatted on the farther slope facing the spot where the flashes had shown in the hills. A brown, long-lingered hand clutched a disc of polished silver tilted so as to catch the sun-rays flaring off at premeditated intervals, a long or short glare of intense light as the curving hand rocked back and forth on the supple, sinewy wrist.

One flash caught McNeill fairly in the eyes and made them water. He noiselessly shifted his angle and then inched back, rose upright, strode past the Mongols and dived into his dog-tent from which he almost immediately emerged and started to shout at the sleeping men in their own dialect, with a vigor that soon brought some semblance of concerted action from them. A fire was started and preparations made for the morning meal.

The man who had been manipulating the silver mirror appeared, yawning as he came over the low dunes. He was of the northern clans, a giant in stature, as tall as McNeill, even broader-shouldered and with arms that swung his hands close to the knee-caps. A long knife, unsheathed, flashed red on his thigh. He hailed McNeill with a morning greeting, and the latter responded with jaws that shut grimly after the salutation.

"It's the first time I ever saw them mirror-talk in China," Neill was thinking, "but there's no reason why they shouldn't. Lots of things I haven't seen and never will. And those priests——?

"We'll start in fifteen minutes. Ling," he said to the tall headman. "We'll drink tea and eat after we get on the march."

Ling's mask of old ivory did not change, but his voice was gently deprecatory. "The master and his daughter are not yet arisen!" he said. "The beasts are tired."

"That is my affair!" snapped McNeill. "I am your master in this business and you have your orders. See that you obey!"

He could sense that the rest of the Mongols had suddenly stiffened in their attitudes, temporarily frozen, keen to some tenseness in the situation and the whip-like crack of McNeill's voice. From Ling's agate eyes showed a momentary gleam that might have been the light of any of a dozen emotions, none of them friendly. The gleam died before the steady light in the coldly blue orbs of McNeill. Ling turned away with the ghost of a shifting grin on his yellow face. To his shrill syllables two of the men shuffled off toward the camels and three others after the horses.

A flap in the humpback tent of native design was thrown back, and a girl came out, slim in her brown holland riding togs, putteed, helmeted with a pith topee, her skin slightly tanned, her eyes even bluer than McNeill's and her hair yellow as ripe corn. She was barely up to McNeill's shoulder, but there was no suggestion of delicacy about her slender figure or the free vigor with which she walked towards him.

"I suppose there is no water to spare for anything but tea," she said. "Not for myself, though I am gritty and grimy to the last degree, but father is fussing about shaving."

McNeill ran his fingers over the stiff red stubble of his own lean jaws and grinned.

"Not a chance of it before nightfall," he answered. "I wish you'd ask him to hurry. We've got to be moving. Have to eat in the saddle this morning."

She looked at him inquiringly but turned and went back to the tent while McNeill gazed after her admiringly. Then he wheeled. Ling had come up behind him noiselessly.

"Well?" asked McNeill.

"One of the camels is very sick—too sick to travel."

"Slit its throat and leave all its load. We can get along without tents for the next three nights."

Ling looked at him evilly.

"Four of the horses are badly galled," he said. "Three more are sick. We have come too far, too fast. We must rest."

"You know we are short of water," said McNeill. "Why do you disobey my orders?"

"It is not possible to obey them, O, my overlord," answered Ling, his face deferential, eyelids down, his soft voice impudent.

Back of him the Mongols had gathered in a half-ring, looking covertly out of almond eyes that glittered like those of snakes.

McNeill's left arm shot out, caught the waist-cloth of Ling and drew the giant toward him. Ling's right hand shot down to the haft of his knife, but, swifter still, McNeill had drawn his automatic and jabbed its blunt muzzle hard into the stomach of the Mongol.

"You dog," he said, "drop that knife! Drop it or——"

Ling's unwrinkled lids were wide now. In his stare came the red light that shoots from the black opal and tells of hate and murder. But the knife dropped to the sand and McNeill put his foot upon it. Then he swiftly searched Ling for more weapons, found another knife and a cheap revolver with three cartridges in the cylinder. The shells he tossed far away with a jerk, flinging the pistol after them.

"Miss Remsden!" he called.

The girl came running out of the tent. Behind her followed a stout man with a fussy, important face that was scorched rather than tanned, whose clothes fitted him badly and became him worse; a bow-legged, bow-stomached person who most evidently essayed to be a personage and who strutted like a gosling. His pale gray eyes were inclined to pop and now they strained at the action going forward.

"What's this McNeill, what's this?" he demanded in a pompous voice. McNeill paid no attention to him, speaking to the girl.

"My rifle—in my tent! And then get yours!"

She got the first and sped back for the second. McNeill stepped back from Ling who had stood immovable since the dropping of the knife. The muzzle of the rifle swung in an arc of command about the semicircle of Mongols.

"First to move, moves once only," warned McNeill. "Now then, Mr. Remsden, please go over them carefully and remove all their weapons. Miss Helen will help you cover them one by one as you go about it."

Remsden's red face had gone patchy and his hands shook but the nervousness of the man was evidently purely physical. He was not a coward and he nerved himself up to his task, backed by the girl. At McNeill's directions he tossed the miscellaneous assortment of weapons into a heap. The latter ordered Ling to make them into a bundle, using a sheepskin and tying the package firmly with strips of leather.

"I'll carry this," said McNeill, "till we come to the first hole, dirt or water. Now then break camp, leave the tents and heavy baggage. Saddle up! Jump!"

THEY jumped and McNeill, rifle at carry, walked to his own tent and picked up his field-glasses as the Mongols, spurred into feverish activity, stripped down the canvas. McNeill focussed his lenses and looked anxiously toward the western hills. After a little hesitation Remsden came over to him.

"What have you found out, Neill?" he asked. "What was it? A mutiny?"

McNeill turned on him.

"I'll answer you that question," he said, "when you tell me what you were up to at the temple. I suspected something when you wanted to come away in such a tearing hurry."

Remsden blinked at him from between his sandy eyelashes.

"Why there was nothing to stay for any longer," he said. "We had seen the ritual. I had got all I wanted."

"I don't doubt it," said McNeill. "The point is, what did you get?"

Remsden blustered.

"I employed you as guide and interpreter, Mr. McNeill, not to poke into my private affairs."

"As things have turned out they are my private affairs," said McNeill coldly, "if my life is my private affair, which I think it is. To say nothing of your stepdaughter's life, I don't know just how highly you value your own."

He broke off to hasten the final preparations for departure. The girl was already mounted. Remsden got patchy again and then his face flamed angrily.

"You have given me no explanation," he barked. "I repeat that whatever I do on this trip for which I hired you, has nothing to do with the contract. What has happened?"

"I caught Ling heliographing to a party in the hills," said McNeill briefly. "I think he was answering orders to delay us. I took up a collection of their cutlery to prevent a throat-cutting. I don't know yet whether I have succeeded. Look at that dust cloud there where the sun catches it. That's a party after us and they will come swiftly. I'll bet a thousand dollars they are priests of the Hoang Lung."

He caught the shifting of Remsden's eyes and nodded.

"I thought so," he added. "I don't know what you've been up to, but it's three days to Peking, seventy-two hours, and just about a seventy-two to one shot that we don't get there. Better get on your horse, Mr. Remsden. Ling, that's the pass you talked about last night, isn't it? How far is it?"

He pointed to two dark purple juts low on the eastern rim of the plain. Ling's eyes glinted.

"Twelve hours," he said. "If the horses and camels hold out."

"They'll have to. But we won't go that way Ling. We'll strike south until we strike the Chang-Li River. We'll keep in the gullies out of sight. I'm going to ride in the rear, Ling, and if I think, or if I should just happen to think, that you are trying to signal back any change of our plans, I'll shoot the lot of you. I'll defile your bodies and leave them to the vultures. I'll cut off your queues and burn them to ashes. Get my meaning? You do? Then start!"

Ling snarled like a trapped wolf, openly, forgetting to mask his feelings. McNeill grinned back at him. The girl rode over to the latter's side and he changed the grin to a smile as he surveyed her fearless eyes and her trim seat on the pony.

"We are in some danger, Mr. McNeill?" she asked. He looked at her and frankly nodded.

"And then some," he added, a bit grimly. "Thank God I'm not afraid to tell you. But we are going to get out of it all right."

"I'm sure of that," she replied quietly and rode ahead to join her stepfather.

McNeill's smile came back as he surveyed her. As the little caravan descended into a shallow ravine with rocks protruding here and there through the sand like dry bones, he began to whistle softly. A scrap was forward, and McNeill loved a fight. It was only when he thought of the girl that the muscles in his jaws tightened and the whistle was interrupted.

Back in the western hills the dust cloud moved swiftly down and out into the plain, steel points and blades twinkling here and there as the sun pierced the veil of floating soil.


DOWN in the blackness of the ravine the thin thread that still persisted in the watercourse tinkled over the flinty stones. The walls of the cañon lifted clear and sheer five hundred feet, dark blots of purple. The narrow strip of sky above them, as seen from the floor of this valley, suddenly appearing in the sandy desert as if the granite precipices had thrust themselves up through the yielding soil, was studded with stars. There was no sound but the sharp voice of the waters emerging from the sands to lose themselves again where the ravine ended.

A perilous ledge led along the western cliff and passed the black gorge of a cave that slanted sharply upwards after a brief passage that ran back level for perhaps a hundred feet. At the mouth of the cave, rifle across his knee, sat Neill McNeill, craving for the smoke he might not permit himself.

Forty-eight hours had passed since they left the camp where he had caught Ling heliographing, and all his senses warned him that danger was very close at hand. He knew it from the attitude of Ling and his followers. Their surliness was lightened; they had seen, had heard, or smelled something that his over-civilized perceptions had missed. He knew the priests must have been misled at first but they were indubitably far better mounted than the Remsden party, and not all McNeill's skill had been able to obliterate trails.

Both nights he had bound the Mongols hand and foot. By day he herded them. They were utterly one with the pursuit; they were eating up the scant supply of food and at times tried to delay the march, until McNeill threatened to shoot the first recalcitrant, but, if he left them free, it would but be to augment and advise the enemy, and he had a plan in mind by which he could still use them, despite their wishes.

Both the camels he had killed as too slow, taking valuable time to bury them deep so that the clustering carrion birds should not act as guides. Only two of the horses were in any shape to travel. Remsden had ruined two already with his weight and clumsy riding. The detour had delayed them, and they were still thirty hours from the outskirts of Peking. And, until they reached the foreign quarter of that city, they could not reckon themselves safe.

"Possibly not then," meditated McNeill, watching the opposite sky-line.

There was no trail on the face of the other cliff, so he covered the ledge on their own side and was on guard against surprize. At the end of the straight tunnel Remsden and Helen lay resting, if not asleep. Ling and the rest were tucked in a niche, none too comfortably, and McNeill himself had tied the soaked hide-strips that fettered them.

"I wonder," he went on in thought, "just what the old boy did back there at the temple. He was hobnobbing with that sleek rat, Fung-Ti, who got beaten out for high-priest at the last Hoang Lung election. Remsden's got his own ambitions. He'd rather be head of the Museum of Philological Research than anything in this world, or the next for that matter. He'd barter all he has for that, his stepdaughter included. When it comes down to his own ends he's a devil of selfishness. A-ha!"

He cuddled up his rifle lightly, leaning forward from the ledge. There was more than a hint of moonrise across the ravine, and his ears had caught the clink of metal—not hoof on stone, since few horses were shod in that region, but blade or point against stirrup.

Then, silhouetted against the radiance of the eastern sky, back so far from the edge that only the upper parts of their bodies showed, there came a file of horsemen. The riders wore queer, pointed caps and flowing robes. He could see spears and guns aslant their shoulders. They rode fast, and he counted over fifty.

There was a slight shuffle beside him. Ling, bound as he was, had wriggled his way to the front of the cave. His clothes had caught on something, and the force he had summoned to break free had betrayed him, even as he raised his face and opened his mouth to shout to the dark riders across the cañon.

With a sidelong sweep McNeill brought the butt of his gun down on the base of the Mongol's skull, and the cry died in his throat. But it was a close call, and McNeill patrolled the cave to the niche where he inspected his prisoners and gagged them with dirty strips from their own clothes, threatening them with a knife if they made the tiniest sound. Then he went back to where he had left Ling.

The ledge was empty.

"Came to and rolled himself over," McNeill decided. "Now I wonder just why."

The answer came to him almost immediately. The riders were coming back again, and McNeill could see two of them dismount and peer down into the black gulf, evidently suspicious of the sound they had heard—the slump of Ling into the cañon. He could have picked them off easily, but to remain hidden was of paramount importance. They had but a small supply of water. Besieged in the cave, they must soon give in.

No other sound came from the fallen Ling who had sacrificed himself in vain to serve the fierce priests of Hoang Lung. The smashing drop of a quarter of a thousand feet had beaten the life out of him.

"They'll stay till morning," McNeill told himself, "and then they'll find him, unless——"

He went back to the end of the tunnel where the natural rift narrowed and went up in a narrow, irregular ramp. Under this McNeill paused. Once he wetted his finger and held it up in the darkness. He thought he could detect a faint stirring of the air. From the pocket of the coat he wore, for the night air was chill, he fished out an electric torch and slipped the switch. The beam fell on the sleeping face of Helen Remsden, as she was styled, having adopted the name of her stepparent. McNeill's jaw hardened as he gazed at the beauty that even the cruel forcing of the last two days' flight could not eradicate. From an angle to the right where the tunnel side-pocketed came the faint stamping of horses and the reek of their bodies. Then he shifted the ray to Remsden's puffy countenance and, stooping, shook him by the shoulder.

"Eh, what?"

"Ssh!" cautioned McNeill. "Come with me to the cave mouth. I want a talk with you."

His tone was imperative and Remsden yielded to it without further grumbling. By this time the moon had topped the further wall and was whitening the ledge outside. By and by its light would steal down into the depths and, perhaps, reveal the body of Ling, sure sign that the white men were beleaguered near by.

McNeill thought of climbing down and either bringing back the body or hiding it beneath loose stones. But, in such darkness, he could not hope to eradicate all marks of the fall from the sharp eyes that would surely be seeking for them as soon as light permitted. There would be spatters of blood and, in the meantime, there were other things to do—hopes to work on. Remsden was one of these latter.

McNEILL tackled his employer without formality.

"Remsden, we are in —— bad shape. They've got us cornered. The Hoang Lung crowd has just filed along the cliff across the way. They are suspicious of this place and they'll hang around till morning. There are only two horses fit to travel."

"How do you know they are the Hoang Lung crowd? They may be just a band of robbers with whom Ling was in league."

"I'll bet you know it is the Hoang Lung outfit better than I do, Remsden. In point of fact, it doesn't matter who they are, so long as they are hostile. If they get us—well what they do to us two men don't count so much. I'll take good care they don't get Miss Helen alive, but they are nasty devils and their sort of vengeance don't stop at death. Now I am pretty certain you've got us in this scrape—something you've done at the temple. If it was sacrilege we can't help it now. If you've stolen something, you and that sleek rat of a Fung-Ti, perhaps they'll make terms with us if you give it up. And it's up to you to do it."

Remsden's beefy face was rigid with obstinacy.

"I've done nothing that can be undone," he said. McNeill, keeping the ray shaded from without, suddenly threw the light on Remsden's face and surveyed him keenly. The pop-eyes showed only a sullen doggedness.

"It was all right for you to risk your own life for whatever you were after," went on McNeill, "but, though you told me and told your stepdaughter you only wanted to witness the ritual, I don't believe you. But now you are risking her life and mine for that matter. You've fooled both of us. It's two lives against yours and both of them younger ones. Ling somehow slid off this cliff a little while ago," he went on moodily. "You might do the same thing."

"You mean you would kill me?"

"If I were sure you had something on you that would save the girl's life by giving it up, I would, without compunction."

Remsden gulped.

"You can search me if you like, McNeill. I've got nothing on me. You can search my baggage, destroy it if you like. You'll find nothing. I wanted to see the ritual. I may have offended them, but you're on the wrong track. There must be some way out of this. It isn't just a question of money, McNeill. I told you I'd give you a bonus if the trip was satisfactory. I'll double that. I'll triple it if you get me safe into Peking. That was in the contract—to guard as well as guide. Get me safe into Peking, McNeill, and I'll give you a thousand dollars. I'll give you five."

"I wouldn't accept five cents for trying to save your skin," said McNeill. "I'll do the best I can for you as per contract. Now you get back to the end of the cave. I'll need you presently."

"You think we can get away?" asked Remsden persistently.

"I said for you to get inside," said McNeill so grimly that the stout man crept obediently away.

Presently McNeill followed him. The girl was still sleeping. He switched his ray into the rift above his head and clambered up the slanting way. It was some four feet wide and the sides were damp with moisture. It narrowed, but he wormed his way on and then backed down again.

"It goes through," he said to himself. "And it's all soft earth, I'm fairly certain—just a landslide. There's a chance—for her. And, by the Eternal, we'll open it up if I work those Chinks' fingers to slivers of bone. He kicked up the drowsy Mongols, prodding them with a knife in one hand, threatening them with his pistol in the other, explaining to them what he wanted.

Soon they were at work with stirrup-irons, with pots and metal cups, with jagged cans, one above the other in a living ladder, digging at the soft soil, passing it down in improvised sacks and panniers from the pack animals, working desperately under McNeill's supervision. They labored in the dark, save for occasional spurts of the torch, but they made good progress. Remsden watched without speaking to McNeill who had no time to spare for him, and then the girl awoke and came feeling through the dusk of the cave to see what was happening. McNeill spared a minute or so to tell her.

"They'll locate us by morning," he said. "But they won't find us. I was sure I noted a current of air passing down this shaft that has filled up in some landslide during winter rains. It is not at all probable they know of its existence. Once we break through we can get the ponies up there and make a clean getaway while they are trying to rush the ledge or fooling about in the bottom of the ravine. We can hold them off from the cave-front indefinitely."

"As long as we have water," she corrected.

"There's moisture enough in that shaft to keep us going for a while," answered McNeill. "But I'll make shift to show them our Chinese friends we have with us and, as long as they think they have us trapped, they'll go leisurely about it. In the meantime you and Mr. Remsden will be streaking for Peking."

"And you, what are you going to do?"

"Me? I'm going to amuse myself giving a lesson in marksmanship to the Hoang Lung crowd until I've made them very shy of doing anything else but try and starve us out. You see they won't figure we have a back door and not use it. Then, when I've got them cautious, I'll come scooting hotfoot after you two. There's the Piukiang River ten miles east-by-north, and there are little villages here and there. You must buy a boat or steal one and take to the stream. Steal one if you can, it'll leave less trace."

"You keep on saying 'you' " she said. "You get a boat. We shall wait for you."

"No you won't," McNeill answered.

"I may have to strike quite another trail. Once out, we must scatter and join as best we can. You stick by your stepfather. I'll show up."

She was silent for a minute. Then she objected—

"There are only two horses that can travel."

"Three," lied McNeill. "The yellow pony is feeling fine again."

"Are you telling me the truth?" she asked.

"Ask Mr. Remsden," said McNeill.

"Father!" she appealed.

"Yes, my dear, Mr. McNeill knows what is best. There are three horses. We must rely upon his judgment. Those coolies are slacking up I think."

McNeill went after the Mongols, and the girl subsided. He did not dare to leave the workmen though he dreaded letting the body of Ling remain in plain sight in the ravine. Not that it much mattered, he thought, if they got through the tunnel all right. His own chance of getting away on the yellow pony was pretty slim, but his duty, as he saw it, was to see to the best chances of the girl and of the man who had indubitably employed him as guard as well as guide.

The current of air was steadily stronger. Now and then he climbed Up among the men, blinding them with his light, ignoring the murder in their faces, making them turn their backs while he inspected, whipping them with his will and the fear of death lest they strangle him in a sudden rush. It would not do to let them get too close to the ultimate opening. That he must clear himself, or they would give the alarm.

And, after hours of incredible toil, the thing was done. It was close to dawn and the moon had gone, with the stars paling, when McNeill broke through to the open and found a fortunate masking of bushes and scrub trees all about the hole. Once again he herded the bound Mongols to their niche and then, with Remsden struggling with blistering hands to help him, the two white men enlarged the mouth of the shaft until it was wide enough to allow the egress of the dwarf ponies. All this time the girl stood on watch where the horizontal tunnel opened on the ledge, above the crushed body of Ling, while the mists began to wisp out of the ravine and the sunrise was imminent.

McNEILL got the two horses up the incline and saddled them, while Remsden gathered such provisions as they would need. Then McNeill fetched the girl.

He pointed out to them the lay of the land that sloped toward the little river that, in its turn, would bring them out on the water-highway to Peking. He gave them brief instructions as to their course, handing them the maps and two rifles with ammunition. Remsden could use enough Chinese dialect to make his offers of money understood and, as long as they kept ahead of the fanatic priests and their influence, McNeill had little doubt that they could buy their safety to Peking. At the last moment, when McNeill had crawled off to the cliff edge on a reconnoitering expedition, the girl rebelled.

"We shall not go without McNeill," she declared. "At least I shall not. He is deliberately sacrificing himself for us."

"You are talking foolishly, my dear," answered Remsden nervously. "McNeill is not a fool. He is not throwing away his own life. I have promised to reward him munificiently when we are safe in Peking, and——"

The girl looked at him scornfully.

"You think everything can be bought with gold," she said.

"Well," answered her stepfather with smug complacence, "there are few things that can not. By the way, you may give me back the wallet. It will be safe with me now. I was afraid of light fingers while the Chinese were with us. I sleep so much sounder than you."

Contempt still in her eyes, the girl took a leather wallet from her bosom and gave it to Remsden. The latter furtively fingered its bulk and slid it out of sight before McNeill came back through the brush.

"They are down in the ravine," he said. "They have found the body of Ling. Soon they will be coming along the ledge. I shall use our prisoners as a barrier until you have got well away. Then I shall come after you, but do not wait for me. I am sure you will get through all right, and there is no need to worry about me. I shall be at the Imperial Hotel within a few hours after you—perhaps before. Take the right-hand gully. Go slowly at first and be careful not to throw up any dust. If you find a boat get rid of the ponies. Don't give them away; turn them loose as soon as you see your way clear on the river. Now off with you; I have got to get back to the entrance."

He saw the rebellion in Helen's eyes.

"Au revoir, Miss Remsden," he said. "Let me help you mount. I assure you that I am in no more danger in remaining than you in going—probably less. On my word of honor!"

She looked deep into his eyes and slowly blushed.

"If you do not arrive when you say, within a few hours of us," she said, so low that Remsden, for all his straining ears, could not catch the words, "I shall come back after you."

McNeill saw them disappear into the gully, his hat off to the girl, and then hastened down again to the tunnel. He picked out one of the Mongols and pricked him ahead with his knife-blade until the latter showed himself reluctantly at the cave entrance.

Immediately there was a flash from the opposite cliff, the singing of a bullet, the spang of its lead on the rocky lintel of the cave and the echoing report. The Chinaman shrank back, and McNeill laughed.

"They meant that for me, Ba-ti," he said. "Presently I'll return the compliment."

He had no intention of firing where he was not sure of a target. Every moment gained helped Remsden and the girl and, when he did fire, he wanted to put the fear of his marksmanship into the priests. They thought they had him earthed. A good shot or so would make them cautious.

He tightened up the foot-ropes of the Mongol and put him back with the rest. Then he made a little barricade of loose stones and sat down to guard the ledge. He did not dare expose himself to harass those in the ravine but he hoped that they would attempt to rush the narrow path.

Two hours passed and then a fusillade of bullets smashed about the cave mouth and buzzed down the tunnel. The corners of McNeill's mouth turned up into a little grin. He squinted down the ledge, lying flat in a conduit he had made of the rocks, thrusting his rifle through a niche.

As he expected, a rush was on. A cluster of racing figures turned a shoulder of rock and McNeill began firing rapidly, but with definite aim. Two figures leaped up and plunged into the gulf; another sprawled out on the ledge; a fourth dragged back around the buttress.

"That will keep them thinking for a while," McNeill told himself. "I wonder how about the other direction?"

He turned over and, even as he turned, heard the soft pad of swiftly running feet. The priests of Hoang Lung had split and had meant to attack simultaneously. Some inequalities of the path had hindered their perfect junction, and once again McNeill's rifle took heavy toll. Two men, shot almost simultaneously, whirled, clutched at each other and went spinning down.

"That'll teach 'em not to be in too much of a hurry," muttered McNeill as he slid fresh cartridges into the chamber while stray bullets still sung and splashed above him. "I don't believe they've got more than a couple of rifles at that," he told himself. "Now for the next move. I don't believe they'll try another rush—try and starve us out. I don't fancy they are worrying much about those Chinks I've got corraled. Neither am I. I wonder how many miles are left in that yellow cayuse."

His half-formed plan crystallized as he went back into the tunnel and flashed his torch over the bunch of bound Mongols. One man he selected as close to his own build, though lacking in height. This man he shuffled back to where the rest of the horses were stalled and, at the muzzle of his automatic, ordered him to strip. The man demurred, and McNeill clipped him on the jaw with his pistol, putting him out. Then he deftly peeled off the dirty, unsavory clothes and reluctantly put these on over his own underwear, after investing the Chinaman with the outer garb of Neill McNeill.

The battery of his torch was dimming, fast as he had worked, and it nickered entirely out before he had finished. But he got the limping pony to the top of the shaft and the Chinaman with it. He had collected the few things he meant to take with him, and now, with the wondering, hating eyes of the Mongol watching him, he crawled through the bushes for a last survey of the enemy, crawled back and, with almost the last of his water supply, unflinchingly scraped off with a dull blade all the sprouting red growth on his jaws.

Then he surveyed the lay of the land. To one side, where, almost three hours before, Remsden and his daughter had made for the river, the fissures offered him ample cover. To the other the land opened to a flat plateau sparsely set with dwarf growths.

McNeill forced the Mongol to mount the tethered yellow pony that was in no way anxious to move, tied his feet under the animal's belly and his wrists to the saddle-horn. Once again he slid through the bushes and fired a random shot across the cañon. The echoes crashed as answering bullets came wildly back. He cut the tether, headed the pony for the plateau, pricked it sharply on the flank and fired a couple of shots beneath it that sent it flying fearfully through the scrub bearing a figure in European costume on its back, crouching to avoid the missiles that sped toward it at long range, and then McNeill dived swiftly into the nearest depression and, making the most of his start, fled for the Chang-Li stream.

At nightfall McNeill squatted by the wall of a hut. Outside its door the Chinese were gabbling the local gossip. The boat of Duk Sing had been stolen. Sing had found it gone when he started for the evening fishing. The boat had vanished, but a gold piece was lying by the tether picket, wrapped in a scrap of cloth. So Sing was lucky, for the boat was old. And Chee Foy had found two ponies with their saddles. It had been a great day, said Wong Lee, the headman. It was good to talk but he must be going, for the tide was right and they were waiting for his cargo in Peking. He envied Sing his luck; money was scarce.

As Wong Lee started to go aboard his cargo-boat where the polers only awaited his coming, a figure came out of the darkness and asked in the dialect of the district for a trip passage.

"Not free, oh Wong Lee," said the pleader as the headman scowled. "For, by the favor of my aunt, I have some small matter of money with me, and the trip is urgent. I am sick."

There was a fire burning on an iron plate amidships of the long craft with its thatched cabin and high prow. By the uncertain light Wong Lee looked doubtfully at the stranger. The man's head was bound up in filthy cloths that concealed all but a strip showing nose and cheek-bones. The brow bandage came so low as to hide the eyes.

"What is thy sickness?" asked Wong Lee. "And where is thy money?"

"It is not catching. Lo, I have been suffering long from decayed teeth and the night air brings on the pain, so I journey to Peking to seek a doctor. Here is half of what I possess."

Out of the waistcloth in which his automatic was tucked away handily, McNeill produced some copper cash and two small pieces of gold. He held these out on a palm blackened with dirt. Wong Lee swept all of it into his own paw.

"Get aboard," he said magnanimously. "I will send thee to a cousin of mine who is a mighty doctor in Peking. Pole, pole swiftly, ye doghearts, the tide runs."

As the cargo boat shot out into the stream, McNeill, glancing back, saw torches suddenly break out in the village and heard the racket of voices that betokened the sudden arrival of some cavalcade. Some one ran down toward the river-landing swinging a flare and shouted, but Wong Lee, with an oath, took no notice and the craft shot swiftly down the broad stream. None but the boatmen had seen McNeill and that at the last moment. If the new arrivals were the priests of the Hoang-Lung they had no reason to suspect the entirely regular departure of Wong Lee. There came a bend in the stream and the shouts and lights died out, and McNeill cuddled down on some mats in the cabin, groaning a little from time to time about the decayed teeth that he was forced to protect against the night air.


AFTER nine years of wanderings in interior China, prospecting, engineering, adventuring, Neill McNeill, with his knowledge of customs and dialects, was comparatively at home in Peking. He changed his filthy rags for Occidental raiment at a native tailor's who was to him more of a friend than a mere tradesman and, thus rehabilitated, hurried to the Imperial Hotel.

On the trip of the cargo-boat he had found no trouble in picking up the trail of the eccentric American and his daughter. Remsden, with a smattering of Chinese, was no fool and, once free from immediate pursuit, he had got together an escort and traveled with speed and comfort.

McNeill's connection with him would soon be over, the latter thought regretfully. He meant to take no bonus, for, however much he admired the stepdaughter, he had a very whittled-down estimation of Remsden and his selfishness that would deliberately expose the girl to frightful risk through his own rash actions. But McNeill meant to see them both safely out of the country.

The cult of the Hoang Lung, the guardians of the holiest of all shrines, was powerful and Remsden's offense, which must have been a serious one, would not be lightly condoned. Remsden was apt to consider himself safe in the foreign quarter and become careless. Trouble could easily happen, even on the train to Shanghai whence they would embark for the States, and it would be trouble of a kind that could not be remedied.

A fanatic follower of the Hoang Lung would think nothing of giving up his own life and risking torture if he achieved his object. Even the arm of the American government would be hard put to it to protect the travelers, and McNeill shrewdly surmised that the American minister would not be appealed to by Remsden too hurriedly, as the latter knew that confession of an attempt on his part to interfere with Chinese religious institutions would be met with disfavor.

It was with relief that McNeill passed through the arch into the hotel compound and entered the office of the Imperial. Miss Remsden was out, the clerk declared, but Remsden was in his room. A package had just been delivered for Mr. Remsden, and the Chinese boy who ushered McNeill to the suite carried this parcel with him.

McNeill was frowning when he entered the room. Remsden should not have allowed his stepdaughter on the streets unescorted, he thought, though of course he was not certain that this was the case. Remsden greeted him cordially enough.

"I'm glad to see you back, Neill, my boy," he said. "We were both anxious over your safety but I assured Helen that you would win through. We ourselves had a——"

"Where is Miss Helen?" broke in McNeill.

Remsden frowned at the interruption. He was looking curiously at the package the boy had brought, a box some eight inches square, wrapped in rice-paper on which was inscribed in good English Remsden's name and address.

"She wanted to buy some souvenirs for her friends at home," he said. "I believe she has gone to the Rising Sun Bazaar."

"Good ——, man!" cried McNeill. "You don't mean to say you let her go out alone?"

"The Rising Sun Bazaar is only two blocks away," replied Remsden. "It is in the foreign quarter. Have you lost your nerve, Neill?"

"You have taken leave of your senses!" said McNeill angrily, taking up his hat. He was going to the Bazaar without delay. "How long has she been gone?"

"Why, I hardly know," said Remsden leisurely, setting down his cigar and devoting both hands to the unwrapping of the package. "A little over an hour, I should say. I——"

His voice died away in an inarticulate choking that made McNeill, half-way to the door, turn and regard him sharply. Remsden's face was blotched, his jaw sagged, his pop-eyes seemed actually starting from their sockets and they were lit with a horror that showed in his mottled, shaking jowls and the trembling hands which were still suspended above the box that he had opened.

McNeill crossed to him, picked up the box and shook out the objects it contained on a newspaper that Remsden had been reading. A scrap of paper closely covered with small, beautifully written Chinese script fluttered after them. Remsden stared, still incapable of action, fascinated by the grisly things before him.

These were the half-desiccated lips, ears and eyelids of a man, the black lashes, gummy with dried blood, still clung to the latter.

"What—what?" he muttered as McNeill rapidly translated the script.

With his eyes, his lips, his ears, he betrayed.

Now can Fung-Ti neither see wrong, nor speak falsely nor listen to the voice of the white devil who bribes.

"Fung-Ti?" muttered Remsden and looked up at McNeill who towered over him menacingly, the scrap of paper in his hands quivering.

"Do you know what the rest of this says?" demanded McNeill. "Listen!

These are the lips and eyelids and the outer ears of Fung-Ti, the false priest, the thief, the betrayer.

Within ten days restore the sacred relic or, what has happened to Fung-Ti, who still lives but prays to the gods he has betrayed that he may die, shall happen to the white woman who returns to the shrine of Hoang Lung as hostage.

First did we test Fung-Ti with the ordeal of the Brazen Serpent. Then did we sever the false members we send to you. It would he hard to tell now that Fung-Ti was once a man. Yet he lives.

The limbs of the white woman are far more frail than those of Fung-Ti. They will shrink and shrivel in the twist of the Bronze Serpent.

Ten days we give you. Return the holy relic, and the girl shall be delivered to the messenger. Fail, and not only shall the girl die many deaths but thou and the man who was with thee shall know the vengeance of the Hoang Lung though ye hide in caverns at the bottom of the sea.

See that ye do this secretly. For, if ye appeal to the governments or speak to any that the Shrine of Hoang Lung has been dishonored, in that same hour shall ye all die."

SO MENACING was the look with which McNeill regarded Remsden that the latter threw up his shaking hands in a semblance of defense.

"For the love of God, Neill!" he whimpered.

"Stop your blasphemy," said the Irishman. "Do you know what the Brazen Serpent means, Remsden? They twine copper tubes about your legs and arms and waist and then they fill the tubes with boiling water. That is what they threaten to do to——"

He struck the heavy table such a smash with his doubled fist that the panel split and the horrible bits of Fung Ti danced on the paper. "Out with that relic, Remsden! Out with it!" he demanded. "They have got Helen! Give it to me so I can go after her!"

"Ten days, they said—ten days. The shrine is only five days' journey."

McNeill gripped Remsden by the shoulders and, heavy as he was, shook him as a terrier would shake a rat.

"You would temporize with the girl's safety?" he cried. "I'll tell you this, Remsden. If one hair of her head has been harmed when I return—and I shall return—I will make you wish you had been Fung-Ti. Where is this relic?"

"Wait," said Remsden, shrinking into his chair on his release but with his face sullen with the piggish obstinacy he could assume. I can not give it to you. I haven't got it. I can't get it again before forty-eight hours. There will be plenty of time."

"Remsden, you lied to me before in the cave. You are lying now."

"I did not lie to you. I said that you might search me. I did not have it with me. Helen had it then, though she did not know it. It was in my wallet. I told her it bothered me in riding, and she carried it." McNeill's utter loathing pierced even Remsden's armor.

"I am not lying now," he asserted doggedly. "I may be able to get it back a little sooner than forty-eight hours. But I haven't it and that's the flat truth."

McNeill, his eyes burning within a few inches of the other's, told himself that Remsden was telling the truth.

"I am going to give you just twenty-four hours to produce it," he said. "During that time I am going to make preparations that will insure the safety of Miss Helen. If you haven't got it back by then you are going to be a very unhappy man for the rest of your life. You are not my employer in this matter; you couldn't hire me with your money to go back. I am going on my own account. You can pay me what you do owe me, however, as I shall need immediate cash."

Remsden detached certain travellers' checks from their sheaf and passed them over to McNeill.

"It is no use threatening me," he said. "I will get it as soon as I can—not later than forty-eight hours. That gives us a margin of three days. They will not injure her."

"What is this relic?" demanded the younger man.

Remsden's eyes glowed. He seemed to recover his self-assurance. The man was a trifle mad, with the frenzy of a collector, McNeill decided, as Remsden poured himself some whisky and tossed it down with a hand not yet steady.

"What do you know about Chinese mythology, Neill?" he asked.

"Not very much."

McNeill resented the smug manner of Remsden's speech but he was anxious to learn what he could about the relic.

"Ah! Perhaps you know that they believe that originally the land was ruled by the dragon kings, lords of air, land and sea?"

McNeill nodded.

"Well, in the holy shrine of Hoang Lung is supposed to be kept an actual claw of the last of the dragon kings—a claw set in gray jade carved to represent the sheath of the claw and also inscribed with runes that even the great Lao T'se could not interpret. This claw is probably that of a great cave-bear; it is of non-retractile type. It is evidently very old. It might even have come from some monster of prehistoric times. The point is that it is believed indubitably to be the claw of the dragon, and the temple of the Hoang Lung is worshiped as its repository."

"And you got it? How?"

Remsden almost beamed with self-satisfaction.

"I got up the expedition to the temple. I am not a Mason but I have knowledge of the ancient universal rituals and symbols from which modern Masonry has borrowed. They have been long known to the older dynasties of ancient nations, China included. Through their use I was received by the priests, as you know, and observed their ritual, something but one other white man has ever done. I noted that the claw was not a myth. Fung-Ti did the rest for a very large sum of money that was packed in the box carried by the smaller camel, the box you, with all the rest, thought carried cartridges."

"I thought some one had stolen that," said McNeill under his breath.

"Just how Fung-Ti accomplished the theft I do not know. I left the particulars to him. He has been frightfully punished, but he knew his risk. Under ordinary circumstances nothing would have been discovered for a full month, by which time Fung Ti would have been far away, had it not been for that shower of shooting stars the night after we left the temple. The priests of Hoang Lung imagine such phenomena the golden scales shaken from the dragon gods in anger, and I suppose they investigated. It was an unfortunate coincidence.

"The claw was without doubt the most wonderful curio in the world. It would have brought me fortune. I preferred fame. Now I have lost both," he sighed.

McNeill regarded him keenly. The sigh hardly seemed genuine, but he was determined that Remsden should not leave his sight until the relic reappeared from wherever it had been deposited. That Remsden should have let it leave him for a moment seemed incredible, but he was certain that in that matter the collector had not lied. For the rest he was an incipient lunatic so far as curios were concerned.

"I want you to go out with me for a while," said McNeill. "And I shall take the connecting room to this suite."

"Where are we going?"

"To pass the word to certain men that I know," said McNeill. "I am going on this return trip with an escort of he-men, Mr. Remsden. I take it you would prefer to stay in Peking. I should recommend the embassy after we have gone, if they will shelter you. Come on!" His tone was that of sheriff to his prisoner. For a half moment Remsden rebelled.

"Very well," he said at last. "Anymore funds that are necessary?"

"If I run short I'll borrow some from you," snapped McNeill. "Come on!"

THIRTY-SIX hours later McNeill seated in his room next to that of Remsden whom he could hear impatiently padding up and down, listened to a knock on Remsden's door and to Remsden opening it. Some one who talked in a voice of high pitch that was almost instantaneously hushed to a whisper, was admitted. McNeill rose and softly opened his own door to the corridor. Presently he heard the chink of gold and Remsden's door reopening.

He gilded to where his own entrance stood ajar, the light out in his room, and saw, gliding along the passage, the bowed form of an old Chinaman who was stowing away something in his capacious blouse. The face of wrinkled yellow skin, drawn tight as a drumhead over the skull, showed little, but the eyes, looking furtively from left to right, held the look of one who gloats over greed satisfied and is yet possessed with deadly fear.

Moreover, McNeill recognized the man as the master-craftsman of all Peking's artificers in precious metals and gems, in pearl and ivory—Ling Yuan, the greatest connoisseur of all the Orient in such works of art.

It seemed evident to him where the claw had been. For some reason Remsden had consulted Ling Yuan as to the authenticity of the claw, fearing perhaps that Fung-Ti had played him false, though the awful mementoes of that false priest had since furnished mute proof of his having really obtained the actual relic. Wondering a little what enormous sum Remsden must have demanded from Ling Yuan as pledge for the return of the claw, McNeill turned on his light and closed the barely opened door without noise. The next instant Remsden appeared in the entrance between the rooms.

"I have the claw," he said. "Take it, Neill, and save Helen."

McNeill took it—a little thing to represent the burning, mystical faith of the most mysterious nation of the world. The claw itself was black with age, and far longer than that of any animal that Neill had ever seen, sharply curved, set in gray translucent jade which was scaled where it gripped the claw and, above that, deep cut with hieroglyphs. He opened his belt and shirt and put the thing away in a pocket of his money belt.

"I shall find a better place for it presently," he said.

Remsden sighed as he saw it disappear.

"It was a costly experiment," he said. "How early do you start?"

"Immediately," said McNeill. "There is not a moment to lose. We shall travel fast, but there may be delays. My men are waiting for me now."


THE temple of the Hoang Lung, the Shrine of the Dragon's Claw, lies in a natural amphitheater, the buildings of stone and sun-dried brick standing in a horseshoe of steep hills that are honeycombed with caves and fissures, some of which are used as dwellings for the priests. The entrance to the horseshoe is winged across with stone walls that connect with high arches, also of stone and carved with weird representations of the dragon gods and their lesser attendant divinities.

There are three of these arches and they were undoubtedly built to serve as defenses against, marauders from the north. They were built, many hundreds of years ago, perhaps thousands, and their carvings are smudged with the rasp of wind and rain and desert sands, and there are deep interstices where once the stone blocks met with exact precision.

A modern field gun would knock one to pieces in two shots; yet, inasmuch as field guns have never neared the shrine, they are still considered, in the light of legend and dim history, impregnable when the wooden gates, reinforced heavily with metal, are closed.

At nightfall of the fifth day after their start from Peking, the seventh since the ultimatum of the priests had been delivered to Remsden, a party-of white men were camped in the hills some three miles from the town and temple of Hoang Lung. By the light of the fire about which they sat at a war-council with their pipes or cigarets going, they were a hard-bitten, lean and capable looking crowd, eighteen of them in all—volunteers under McNeill to get a white girl out of Hoang Lung.

Engineers, prospectors, adventurers of sorts they were and all were known to McNeill personally. They represented every loose and available white man in Peking or its vicinity who could get away for such a trip. Their ages varied from twenty-two to fifty, and they were all as hard as nails. Every one of them knew how to handle a gun and was not afraid to do so. Better, they knew when not to do so.

McNeill stood apart in talk with a bearded man who had built many miles of railroad in interior China only to see his work undone by fanatic hordes, urged on by the priests. Neill's field-glasses were slung at his sides, and he unbuckled the case and took them out.

"The moon'll be up in a few minutes, Wilson," he said. "It's lightening over the eastern ridge now. Canfield and I are going in alone on foot as soon as it rises. After we've fixed things at the first arch we'll camp in one of the caves. I'll go in soon after dawn—alone."

"It seems foolhardy to do that, Neill," said Wilson. "Wouldn't at least a display of force help out? Of course you're running this show."

"I've gone over it very carefully," said McNeill. "I've got to make the play single-handed. At eight o'clock, if they are not coming through, you know what to expect. If I don't show up here by nine, or you don't see me coming, then you take command and do whatever you think best, not forgetting that it is more than probable that Miss Remsden and myself will be past doing for.

"Here comes the moon. Now then, take the glasses and look about sou'-west-by-sou'. There are parallel ridges leading in that general direction and Canfield and I will keep the valleys, though I don't think there is much fear of a lookout. They are expecting us, no doubt, but it is our move and they are not likely to be worrying about it. We are three days to the good. You can use the ridges for cover tomorrow if things go wrong with me."

Wilson, the glasses to his eyes, only grunted. The arches, particularly the first one, were plain to see, their stones silvered by the moon, now clear of the ridge.

"'S up to you," said Wilson at last, "till eight o'clock tomorrow. Then it's up to me. Goin' to take horses?"

"No. Less noise, less risk. We can pack all we need easily enough. A good deal depends on getting our work done absolutely unobserved."

"If you don't come back," said Wilson gruffly, "or if they've done anything to that girl, I'm telling you one thing, McNeill, before noon tomorrow the inhabitants of Hoang Lung are going to think hell, or whatever their heathen equivalent for Gehenna is, has opened under their feet. We've got the stuff to do it with and we've got the boys who know how to use it."

They walked back to the rest of the expedition in silence. McNeill had deliberately shut off from his mental vision all thoughts of what might have happened to Helen Remsden. Suggestions of bronze tubes filled with boiling water and twisted around her dainty limbs, thoughts of all the fantastic refinements of devilish torture that might be practised upon her, he deliberately dismissed as unnerving and destructive to the job in hand.

He did not trust the priests. Once they had obtained the claw, they would be likely to endeavor to get revenge on those who had had any hand in the defilement of the sacred relic. He had laid plans accordingly.

Canfield came forward to meet them, the youngest of the troop, a man absolutely reckless, once given his head, but possessing the rare quality of being able to take orders from a man he acknowledged capable of giving them.

"Ready to go, McNeill?" he asked.

"If you are."

"Righto," returned Canfield, Britisher and younger son. "Got all my little duds packed for the picnic."

"Then we're off," announced McNeill.

The talk stopped, pipes and cigarets were taken briefly from mouths that quietly wished "good night" and "good luck," and the two started on their hike.

AN HOUR and a half later two figures glided away from the dark shadow of the first arch and, blending in the inequalities of the cliff face, after they had passed the length of the stone wall in a low crouch, carefully paying out a thin thread as they went, disappeared in a niche where the face of the precipice had warped apart. There they compared watches carefully.

"We'll check again in the morning, Canfield," said McNeill. "I want to pull this thing off to the second, if possible. It's three o'clock now. These priests are a lazy crowd. I won't start until seven and even then they won't be stirring. That gives us four hours—two apiece for sleep. I'll take the first watch."

"You're on," said Canfield and curled up in the crevice like a tired dog.

At seven o'clock McNeill left the little fissure and descended unnoticed to the flat ground in front of the first arch. There was no sound of gong, no sign of life within the enclosure. The gates were shut, and he knew the frowsy sentinel slept inside. The holy priests of Hoang Lung were not ascetics. So far as they could obtain it, they lived upon the fat of the land and denied themselves nothing, and, by virtue of the claw, their tribute was universal and munificent.

At fifteen minutes after seven McNeill took a whistle from his pocket and blew on it shrilly. A wicket in the upper leaf of one gate was drawn back, and the sleepy eyes of a watchman peered out, widened as they saw the solitary white devil, and suddenly disappeared.

It was fifteen minutes more before the gates were opened and a group of yellow-robed and shaven priests appeared, escorted by a score of so-called soldiery, armed with a nondescript array of swords, wide-bladed spears, muskets and rifles of all vintages. In their midst McNeill walked through to the inner courtyard.

A short, fat priest advanced. He was ancient. His avoirdupois spoke eloquently of self-indulgence, and his face, projecting from the draped hood that puffed about his full neck, held no more expression than that of a turtle. The small eyes showed merely life, no more emotion than if they had been insets of jet.

"Tao Chan?" asked McNeill.

This had been the name of the writer of the letter to Remsden, the name of the head priest of Hoang Lung.

Tao Chan acknowledged the dignity.

"You have brought back the claw?" he demanded.

"Is the hostage safe?" parried McNeill.

"To talk in questions is to waste time," replied the priest. "First answer me."

"I can make delivery of the claw."

"The girl is unharmed."

"Then show her to me."

"Show me the claw."

McNeill laughed, and a red light came into the jetty eyes of Tao Chan.

"It is not wise to make a mock of the guardian of the claw," he said.

"It is not wise to take a white man for a fool, O guardian that has no claw to guard," answered McNeill. "Show me the girl!"

There had been no apparent sign, but the priests fell back and the guards edged in toward the Irishman.

"Touch me and I destroy your temple," he said confidently.

It was Tao Chan's turn to laugh, but a grin was the nearest he could come to it.

"You speak boldly," he sneered.

McNeill was gaging his time, looking covertly at the hands of his wrist-watch. "The bargain was to exchange the girl for the claw," he said. "You know I must be able to produce the claw or I would not. have traveled so far. I must know that you can produce the girl."

Tao Chan's immutable face gave no sign, and McNeill's heart sank, then rose again. If they had injured her? To them the life of a white maiden, save as they could use it for torture, was nothing. He tried a lead on this line.

"Also there are many thousands of white maidens, O Tao Chan, and but one claw."

"There is but one maiden for thee, white man."

"And yet there are thousands, aye millions, who hold thee responsible for the claw," challenged McNeill. "If I return not with the girl in safety, all China will know how. Tao Chan has been outwitted by the foreign devils, and I do not think what is left of thy life will be happy. Show me the girl."

Still no visible sign, but the guards inched in. It seemed clear to McNeill that the whole thing had been planned before the gate was opened. They meant to get the claw and wreak their vengeance on McNeill and the girl, if she was not already sacrificed. He looked at his watch. It was five minutes of the hour.

"I have warned you," he said. "Do you think I was fool enough to come here alone with the claw upon me? There are yet three days within which to deliver it. It is not far from here but in a place where you can never find it. First I must know whether you can keep your side of the bargain. Show me the girl."

"I think you can be made to tell where the claw is," said Tao Chan softly.

"I do not know where it is," said McNeill. "So I can not tell you."

He spoke with such utter conviction that Tao Chan's face twitched. He believed that the foreign devil might be telling the truth. He gave an order. It was repeated back to where guards lounged on the steps of the quaintly-roofed temple. The lacquered doors opened, and the figure of Helen Remsden appeared between two priests, who stepped back a little from her. She gave a little cry, and McNeill, whimsically conscious of the incongruity of the action, took off his helmet. Then the doors closed again.

"We shall not torture you the first," said Tao Chan very quietly. "First you shall watch us work with the girl. After that you may not care to live. But we shall give you certain chances from time to time to bring in the claw. You foreign devil," he continued almost in a monotone that threatened the more with its repression, "did you think you could ravish the shrine of the dragon god and go unscathed? Fung-Ti has been punished. So shall all the rest of you be punished. Your prayers for pity shall lack lips to utter them."

"Touch me," said McNeill, "and I shall shoot you through the belly, Tao Chan. Just one tiny touch—I have you covered now from my pocket—and you will be explaining to your gods why you could not keep their claw. I give you one chance. Tell your men to fall back, bring out the girl in a palanquin borne by four priests. You and four more shall accompany me to the spot where the claw will be turned over to you. Will you do this?"

For the last few seconds marked by the march of the hands on McNeill's watch, the two men, Occidental and Oriental, held a duel of glances.

IN THE fissure Canfield stooped above a little instrument of polished wood and brass. For fifteen minutes he had been expecting to hear McNeill's whistle. Now he knew that the little lesson they had arranged was to be given, and he glanced at his own watch and looked over his adjustments with nerveless thoroughness.

"No," bluffed the high-priest.

Back of them there was a muffled roar, a swift suggestion of exploding gases, a cloud of smoke that mushroomed, in which fragments of masonry lofted and rushed down again while the outer arch crumbled and dissolved before the eyes of Hoang Lung.

McNeill had not moved a muscle. Now he put the question again.

"Will you do this? Or shall I destroy the shrine?"

Tao Chan thought rapidly. He guessed somewhat of the means employed to level the arch. But it had been done very cleverly, and he could not offset the terror of his ignorant underlings by a talk on dynamite. To them it was all magic. McNeill seemed very confident, and Tao Chan felt that the white man might use more of this magic wisdom to carry out his threat. True, the girl was in the Temple, but——

He looked at his panic-stricken guards, at the uneasiness of his priests, trained as they were to avoid emotion, and he looked at McNeill, jaunty, nonchalant, all save his eyes, which were bits of steel. The white devil might sacrifice the girl. They did such things when they were desperate, to save them from torture. The claw must come back. He metaphorically tossed in his cards. He was still qualmish in the stomach that McNeill had threatened.

Once more he gave an order, whereupon McNeill whipped out his whistle and sounded it twice.

Canfield picked up his battery and connections and strolled out of his cave.

"Worked like a charm," he said to the lizards that flickered before him. "A little bit of all right, that."

A BAFFLED mob clustered about the ruins of the outer arch and sullenly watched the palanquin borne by the priests depart under the command of the two white devils.

McNeill and Canfield walked one on either side of the chair and talked through the drawn curtains of elaborately embroidered silk to the rescued Helen Remsden. McNeill and Helen did most of the talking, Canfield noticed, and, being a goods sport, he filled in the time smoking cigarets.

So they came to the camp in the hills, traveling the crest of the ridge, despite the sun, for McNeill wanted to make sure they were not followed. Amid the ring of men the priests set down the palanquin.

"Now," demanded Tao Chan as the girl stepped out, "I have kept faith. Where is the claw?"

"What did you do with it, Wilson?" asked McNeill. "I told our bloated friend here that I did not know where it was, but he would not believe me."

Tao Chan, not knowing the language of the foreign devils, glowered at them suspiciously.

"The white men also keep faith, Tao Chan," said McNeill. "Give it to him, Wilson."

The bearded man solemnly uttered a jargon of meaningless syllables. He was in his rolled-up shirt-sleeves and he exposed his open hands back and front to Tao Chan and the priests.

"Can ye not see it?" he asked, speaking fluently the vernacular. "It was hidden in the air. Lord of air and land and water and of fire was the dragon king. He did but return the claw to its own and now, in promise kept, we bring it back again. Behold!"

He pointed to a spot just above the level of the wondering eyes of the priests. Then, between the thumb and forefinger of the other hand, suddenly appeared, by clever legerdemain, the claw.

A cry came simultaneously from the priests and all, save Tao Chan, dropped on hands and knees in obeisance. But Tao Chan,, who could do some pretty conjuring himself upon occasion, frowned and took the relic. From his robe he produced a case of carven jade lined with golden silk, and reverently placed the claw within.

As the priests rose to his order they found themselves covered by the pistols of the expedition.

"You are going to take a little walk with us as far as the bamboo bridge across the Wu-liang chasm," announced McNeill. "To the other side of it, in fact. Then we'll say good-by and leave you with the claw—after we have destroyed the bridge. Doubtless you will find some roundabout way to get back to Hoang Lung. Do you want to ride in the palanquin, Miss Helen, or would you rather have a horse? We brought a spare one for you."

"A horse, please," said the girl. "I haven't been treated at all badly, Mr. McNeill, but the sooner I can get away from everything Chinese the better I shall be suited."

McNeill translated to Tao Chan, into whose face came the suggestion of satisfaction. He appropriated the abandoned palanquin to his own uses, and from there to the bridge the priests spelled each other in carrying his redundancy.

It did not take the little corps of experts long to destroy utterly the bridge of heavy bamboos, ingeniously cantilevered by the Chinese across the deep split, and then they left the discomfited Tao Chan to lead his men back to Hoang Lung as best he could. Straight for Peking they headed, well mounted, exuberant, losing no time.

Helen Remsden told them the details of her carrying off. As McNeill had suspected—had practically known—there were members of the Hoang Lung affiliated with practically every bazaar in Peking, and, when she had walked into the Rising Sun Bazaar, she had walked into a trap that was promptly sprung, a trap that was only one of a long line set for her throughout the city.

"I wanted a mandarin coat or two," she said, "to take home for gifts. I thought the Rising Sun, with almost always an American or European customer at every counter, was safe. Mr. Remsden said nothing to the contrary. But, when I left the hotel, I fancied a Chinaman who was loafing about the compound noticed me particularly and when I was in the Bazaar I was almost certain that this same man came in and spoke to one of the clerks. This clerk spoke to the man serving me.

"I fancy I showed some suspicion, or surprize, and it only shows how clever they were, for the man who was waiting on me, one of the principals of the Bazaar, I fancy, who talked beautiful English, asked me almost instantly if I knew the man. I told him that I did not know him but thought I had seen him before at the hotel.

"He appeared to get very angry and told me that the man wanted a commission on anything I bought, claiming he had recommended me to the Rising Sun. He rated the man, who slunk out. I knew, of course, that such a thing was very likely to happen, and that almost every tourist purchase has a squeeze or two behind the price. It sounded a natural explanation and I thought no more of it.

"I had especially asked for a pomegranate-colored mandarin coat and they had nothing of that shade, or near it, in the lot brought me. Doubtless they took care there was not. At all events, the man seemed disturbed that he did not have one to suit me and called out in Chinese. After the answer he smiled and said that a consignment from Sze-Chuan province had just arrived and was being unpacked and priced. Would I come and see them as they came out of the bale, and take my pick?

"I went into a room at the back of the place. As I passed through the door something was clapped to my face, a cloth saturated in some pungent drug, and that was all I knew until I found myself inside a stuffy palanquin on camel-back, crossing the desert.

"The rest you may imagine. I was fairly well treated and I knew that Mr. Remsden would arrange for my release. I thought—I hoped," she added, a little shyly, "that he would send you, Mr. McNeill."

McNeill, remembering how he had handled Remsden in the matter, smiled a bit grimly.

THEY were traversing a little rocky defile that led down to the Chang Li stream when a horseman approached them. The diminutive pony was being pushed to its top speed by a Chinaman who swayed in his saddle from weariness. When they came up to him, for he could not avoid them in the rocky pass, they saw he was an old man, far too ancient to be attempting such a ride without escort.

He rode his pony to one side along the slant of the piled-up talus of the ravine, staring at the party half curiously, half furtively. The sight of the girl on the horse seemed to fascinate him. Then McNeill, who, with Wilson, had been playing rear-guard from a possible pursuit and surprize, came galloping up and the Chinaman shrank on his saddle to a mere bundle of clothes, hiding his mummy face by pulling down the folds of the turban-like head-gear he wore against the sun.

But McNeill had recognized him, though he did not seek to detain him. It was Ling Yuan, the connoisseur, the master-craftsman, the man he had seen in the corridor of the Imperial, to whom Remsden had so mysteriously entrusted the claw. In the Chinaman's face was the same mixture of satisfied greed and furtive alarm.

"He'll be a bit late with his news," thought McNeill and dismissed him from his thoughts.

Next nightfall they rode through the outskirts of Peking, the cavalcade gradually breaking up as they reached the foreign quarter, only Wilson and Canfield riding with McNeill and the girl through the archway of the hotel courtyard.

McNeill dismounted, went in and came out with the news. Remsden had, doubtless by cabled influence, obtained lodging at the legation. His daughter was to join him there and tomorrow they would start by rail for Shanghai.

"That is bully," said McNeill. "If I remember right, you'll just catch the Cathay. We'll see you to the legation."

"Aren't you going to stay there?" asked the girl. "It's just as dangerous for you."

"I haven't got the drag of Mr. Remsden," smiled back McNeill. "I shall be safe enough. The bunch of us will celebrate our little expedition together. I shall see you on the train tomorrow."

"Then you are coming to Shanghai?"

Wilson in his wisdom had drawn Canfield aside.

"I am going across to the States," said McNeill, "if I can get a spare plank to bunk on. Bookings are heavy this time of year. You—you have no objection to my making the trip with you, Miss Helen?"

"What have I to do with it?" she challenged in sprightly fashion. Then her lashes fell before something in his gaze. "I owe everything to you, Mr. McNeill," she went on seriously. "My life—more than that. I do not know how I can repay you."

"I do," said McNeill. "I'll tell you how on the trip, perhaps."

But the girl, however grateful, was not to have her maidenly defenses overrun in the first assault.

"It will be nice to have some one to talk to," she said. "But I thought that your profession kept you in China, though I can imagine that father's folly may have jeopardized your usefulness."

"I am not a professional guide and interpreter, if that is what you mean," said McNeill. "Only upon occasion. I have made certain discoveries. I am going back to San Francisco to exploit them. Personally, I shall lie low in their development, but I hold a main interest in several projects that promise well."

"But you—Mr. Remsden thought that you—" She broke off in charming confusion as she sensed his reasons for acting as guide to her stepfather.

"There were unusual reasons for my attachment to your stepfather—and yourself," said McNeill. "Here is the legation and there is Mr. Remsden. Good-by until tomorrow."

He raised his helmet as the girl turned from greeting her father and waved her hand to him. Then he joined Wilson and Canfield, still discreetly in the background.

"I happen to know that old Chu Lee has got some Pommery still stowed away," he said. "Let's get the gang together and celebrate."

"Celebrate or congratulate?" drawled Canfield.

"You pay for the champagne, Canfield," said McNeill imperturbably, "and you can take your choice."


THE Cathay was an American ship and, aboard her, McNeill soon discovered himself a comparative nonentity beside Remsden.

The collector was not only rich but evidently powerful by the deference shown him at the legation and aboard the steamer. No bribes of McNeill's were able to get him closer to Helen Remsden than six seats away at the skipper's table and Remsden evidently was not disposed to encourage communications between an Irish adventurer whom he had employed as guide and his stepdaughter, presumably his heiress.

He was courteous enough and liberal enough with offers of reward that McNeill refused, but he pooh-poohed gently McNeill's allusions to his forthcoming exploitation of certain discoveries.

"I hope you'll make a go of it, Neill," he said. "Anything that I can do—but you say you have the capital in sight. It's the concessions that are so doubtful. The Chinese government is exceedingly unreliable and the various powers are envious of each other in these matters. But I wish you the best of luck."

There was a sap-headed son of a millionaire aboard who vied with several others in paying attention to Helen, and to this vapid specimen Remsden showed evident favor, though McNeill believed Remsden had better sense than to consider that Helen would accept these attentions seriously, or that Remsden would use the young man for anything more than a catspaw—a convenient and time-serving barrier against McNeill. Being free from the Hoang Lung pursuit, as he evidently believed, Remsden had every intention of shelving every one connected with it, including McNeill.

He developed a slight illness that McNeill shrewdly suspected was assumed and took advantage of it to keep his stepdaughter in close attendance upon him, with the young millionaire as a willing aide. At Honolulu he took the enamored youth and Helen for a long ride during the wait of the steamer, and McNeill whistled for a chance alone with the girl. Moreover the words of Remsden bore some weight. McNeill had no right to court the girl unless his future was assured instead of merely being rosy-hued, as at present.

And so, in the rare moments when he had the girl alone, he did not tell her, as he had hinted at Peking, how she could repay him for bringing her safely out of danger. He was the last man to bid for a girl's love because he had done what any red-blooded man would do for a girl in peril. Mutual desire was the only thing on which to base happiness, he decided. If he could avow his love, backed by worldly wealth to attend to all her comforts, and, if she showed him his love might not be unacceptable, then he would put the matter to the test.

Meanwhile he must attend to his own affairs in San Francisco while they went to New York by the first train, leaving four hours after the Cathay docked. So, with their New York address and a snapshot taken on deck, he was reluctantly content.

But he did not fail to warn Remsden that all danger might not be over. The Chinese were clannish and the power of the Hoang Lung reached wherever chopsticks were used and punksticks burned. They had back their claw, but they had been flouted. They might seek revenge.

"Poppycock, my dear Neill," smiled Remsden. "Not in America—not nowadays. Even hatchetmen and tongs are out of date. I appreciate your anxiety for my health and that of my daughter, but once in the United States I can well take care of myself—and her. Good-by. You must let me know how you come out with your schemes. I may be able to help you over some hitch—international politics, you know. I am not without some influence in such things."

Neill McNeill had a desire to tell Remsden just what he thought of his complacent selfishness but he repressed it. The train was starting and his opportunity for a personal farewell was going a-glimmering with Remsden's purposeful chatter. The vapid heir was going on the same train, it seemed, and buzzing about Helen like a hungry bee at sunset. The girl was not of Remsden's blood, McNeill thanked Heaven. He did not think many ties bound them save the one of duty on the girl's side, duty and a certain gratitude. And so he deliberately shouldered aside the scion of wealth and won his way to a last handclasp.

"You will let me know how things go, won't you?" she asked, and there was balm in the undoubted interest she expressed. "You have our address and, perhaps, you can make the communication personal?"

There was a suggestion of a blush and a tightening grip of the hand as she said this that recompensed Neill for the immediate bustling up of Remsden and the official remorselessness of the porter who warned that the train "was just stahtin'."

McNEILL took up his affairs in earnest, registering at the Palace and telephoning the members of his syndicate for appointments in a determination to be in New York within the week.

Four days went by and he had the thing well in hand. One man, who had been in the southern part of the State, remained to be seen, and the rest waited for that person's assent before going ahead with the development. McNeill had explained satisfactorily that he was persona non grata with certain elements in China and his wish not to superintend the comparatively simple problems of exploitation was willingly granted by those to whom he was the means of assured wealth.

"Fix it with Cox," they told him at a dinner at the Bohemian Club. "Convince him—you've only to show him what you showed us—and we'll get to work with the lawyers tomorrow."

They were fine fellows, these Westerners, and McNeill felt elated as he left them. He went away early, for he had an appointment with Cox out at the latter's big house at San Mateo that evening.

As he swung briskly down town to the Palace, where he had ordered a car to take him down the peninsula, he fancied, as he had fancied more than once in his four days in San Francisco, that he was being followed. Probably not by Chinamen, for he had reflected that, if the Hoang Lung had by cable got word across to their affiliations on the coast, they would be too subtle to use such palpable shadows. There were many degraded white men, chained to Chinese autocratic dispensers of the drugs they craved, who would be willing to play the spy.

It was only the working of a sixth sense developed in the wilds, but McNeill, though he could pick out no special person on the busy streets, thought enough of the hunch to slip an automatic in his pocket when he took seat in the tonneau of the big car that was soon gliding south to the fashionable suburb.

There were other cars on the road. Many they overtook, but none passed them or seemed to be trailing. Yet McNeill was keenly alive to the fact that the fat priest at Hoang Lung might smart for revenge and impart that revenge to his proselytes as a holy thing to be consummated.

He had warned Remsden. He had even warned, more carefully, Helen. They were safer in New York than he was in California, but all three were still in jeopardy. Presently the thing might die down, he thought, as long as the claw had been restored. Things changed rapidly in China. A new government might frown on even the priests of ancient religions who endangered amicable relations by murdering the subjects of a friendly and powerful country from whom a new republic might need favors.

For the present he would look out and, when he got to New York, he would safeguard Helen as closely as she would permit. McNeill had no fear of not convincing Cox as to his proposition. Then there would be a good sum coming to him immediately and, with developments, he would be a rich man.

As they crossed the San Mateo line a fog began to thicken, but the driver was used to fogs and the road; the lamps were powerful and they kept on their way, making good progress, until finally they turned in between high walls through iron gates and rolled up to Cox's ornate Italian villa.

McNeill could not have been received more cordially by a member of his own family, though this is not a good simile, for McNeill was very much alone as far as relatives went. His host's hearty manner, evident interest and keen appreciation of his doings and their financial possibilities soon put McNeill altogether at ease with the world. Only one untoward incident occurred to disturb two hours of satisfactory business talk and establishment of social relations.

Cox ordered refreshments. The butler was a Chinaman. Cox's ménage was largely Chinese, he explained, and eminently satisfactory. As a butler the man was perfect—silent, careful, deferential. Not once did he seem to glance from beneath his smooth crescent lids at master or guest while he did his serving; but, as he left the room, McNeill caught one oblique glance from those sloe-black eyes directed at him through the reflection of a mirror. The eyes seemed to appraise, to check up, to menace.

McNeill knew what strange tricks imagination plays when one allows any subject of peculiar interest to one's mental or physical welfare to once become dominant. Still he was glad to find the fog had lifted when his car was ordered and he stepped out into the quiet Californian night. Cox pressed him hard to stay until the next morning, when they would motor down together and complete the negotiations that would set McNeill free to go to New York—and Helen.

But, with the absence of the fog, the sense of danger seemed lessened. Moreover, if any was brewing, McNeill wanted to see it through. It was late and the driver started back at a good pace for the city. In less than half a mile, however, the engine began to stall and he got out for investigation. They were on the main road of the fairly populous suburb. On either side were Summer villas standing in considerable, well-tended grounds, behind walls or hedges, as the owners' fancy chose.

The chauffeur tinkered and overhauled and at last investigated the gasoline tank in default of better explanation of their trouble. He gave a sharp exclamation.

"Empty!" he said. "I told them to fill it up at the garage. We ought to have six or seven gallons and there ain't a drop."

"Did you see it filled?" asked McNeill.

"No, I didn't. But they never bunked me this way before."

"What did you do while I was with Mr. Cox?"

"Chewing the rag with his driver. They got two touring cars and a big limousine. He was in the butler's pantry. He's a Chink but he sure treated me white. I guess I'd better go back and get some gas from Mr. Cox's driver. He won't be in bed yet. Two or three gallons '11 get this boat in."

"All right," said McNeill. "Hurry!"

The man started down the road and he watched him turn into the gates of the villa. There were a few fights in the nearer houses and the sound of music came from one of them. It was all very quiet and peaceful.

THEN, with a rush, they were on him. Two figures hurled themselves over the low wall to his right; he heard the swift patter of footsteps from behind as he stood at the rear of the car. Instinctively he backed up to it and felt for his pistol. The gun was gone. The Chinese butler had helped him on with his light coat and deftly lifted it.

The two assailants were coming for him, head on. Even in the uncertain light he felt sure they carried no weapons. Swiftly he reached out his long, sinewy arms, cupped a head in either palm and brought them together with a thud that dropped the two senseless in the dust of the road.

Then something flickered about his neck from behind. He knew what it was as it tightened. Some one had climbed into the tonneau and deftly slipped a bowstring about his neck. The cord tightened and sank into the flesh, beyond his power to loosen. A red glare came before him and he felt consciousness slipping away.

Then sudden relief, though he sagged to the ground even as he sucked the air into his tortured lungs. The glaring headlights of a machine dazzled him as the oncoming car jarred to a standstill a few feet away, and two men jumped out and came toward him.

"What's up, old chap?" asked one of the strangers, giving him a hand.

McNeill saw that the two whose heads he had cracked had disappeared. So had doubtless his other opponent. It was a close shave. Only for these two night birds, who had obviously been celebrating, it would have been all off with Neill McNeill.

"We ran out of gas," he said, with some difficulty, for the cord had bitten deeply. "My man went back to the house there for a supply and I had a touch of vertigo. I haven't been very well."

"Vertigo? That's a new name for it, old pal," said the second man. "I'll have to spring that on my wife. We thought we saw a couple of chaps duck out, right and left, as we came along and then we saw you fall. Maybe we had vertigo ourselves."

McNeill summoned a laugh. He was not inclined to give his confidence now that he was well out of it. His driver was coming back with the gasoline in a can.

"I'm all right now, anyway," he said. "Thanks, both of you. And here's my driver."

The two got into their car and drove off while the chauffeur replenished the tank.

"See anything of the butler?" asked McNeill, as they got ready to start.

"Met him in the garden just now. Taking a stroll with a bit of a dinky pipe. Strange lot, them Chinks."

"I thought I saw him myself," said McNeill. "If I didn't, I felt him," he reflected and picked up from the seat beside him a souvenir of the occasion. It was a slender cord of Chinese silk, flexible, singularly soft, but strong as catgut and bright yellow.


NEILL McNEILL walked out of Grand Central Station, scorning a taxicab. The hotel could send for his baggage. With all the fervor of one American born—New York born, at that—who has been expatriated for years in a barbaric kingdom, he wanted to see, smell and taste New York. He bought a paper but did not look at it. People interested him more than news so far. He was already wondering how soon he could call upon the Remsdens—upon Helen Remsden, to be exact. It was mid-morning and he would have to wait until afternoon he decided. But he could send some flowers, and did.

He walked down Fifth Avenue to his hotel, got his room, washed up and went out again on the streets. The unread paper was still in his pocket. Still on the Avenue, enjoying the bustle of the crowds, the things in the shop windows, he came to Madison Square and sat down among the flotsam and jetsam of the city. Presently he pulled out the paper and gradually became more and more interested. On an inner page was a half-tone engraving of two men in the most modern of conventional attire, silk-hatted yet prominently foreign, Oriental. The caption read:

Prince Liu Chi and his cousin, Prince Ten Shin, who have foresworn their ancient titles for China's new republicanism. They come to America as deputies of the new government to study the institutions and policies of the United States.

It was interesting reading to McNeill, though he wondered at the strange turn of mind that changed the descendants of so old a dynasty to such ardent liberalists. But the establishment of the new republic upon so firm a basis as to make its envoys recognized generally by the United States Government, as these princes seemed to be, to judge by what they had done and what programs were still in store for them officially, held a measure of comfort.

The old powers and traditions of Hoang Lung would die hard, but they might, in the rush of new thought and an open policy toward the Occident, die swiftly. Much of their power would be curtailed with their prestige. They would he low awhile until the ever turning kaleidoscope of awakening China shifted to a new pattern of the same varicolored parts.

There would be a lifting of the ban against the desecrators of the shrine, and the followers of the old legendary faiths would be content with the restoration of their relic. He wondered if Prince Liu Chi or his cousin had heard of the outrage. If so their racial traits would hold the memory despite the 'camouflage of New World veneer. China's ancient faith would not change with its policies, save outwardly. The two nobles were registered at his own hotel, he noted.

Another article flashed at him as he turned the page. It was not a lengthy one, but the headlines leaped at him, making the half-inch capitals that formed the name of Remsden seem as large as wood block freak captions. The article read:

Howard Remsden, celebrated explorer and collector of things anthropological, recently returned from hazardous adventures in the interior of China, was last night unanimously appointed president of the Columbian Museum of Philological Research, a post of great honor among scientists who strive to build the ancient history of the races of the world. After making his speech of acceptance, Mr. Remsden formally presented the museum with a curio that is without parallel—a relic dating back to the myths of ancient China, no less an object than the long worshipped claw of one of the legendary dragon gods of the Flowery Kingdom.

This morning Mr. Remsden is to deliver an address on this unique possession to the members of the museum and other invited savants. Among the guests will be the two visiting princes, Liu Chi and Ten Shin. While Prince Liu Chi, when interviewed last night at his hotel, laughingly deprecated any belief that the claw actually belonged to such a mythical demigod, he professed intense interest in viewing it and listening to Mr. Remsden.

"Modern China looks at such things as a modern American might the relics of some Indian cairn," said Prince Ten Shin in corroboration of his cousin's attitude. "It is fitting that the most progressive of nations should hold such an antiquity. I understand there are certain characters carven upon the jade holder that may be of value to twentieth century research, from our standpoint. We shall certainly accept the invitation of the museum authorities."

Both princes speak English fluently and seem entirely at home with our customs, which they have largely adopted.

This was a staggering thing and McNeill, mechanically folding up the paper, emitted so sharp a whistle that the passers-by looked at him curiously. But he paid no heed to them.

How could Remsden have presented the claw to the museum when, he, McNeill, had given it over to Tao Chan as ransom for the girl? Some jugglery had gone on here—jugglery that increased the danger to Remsden and his stepdaughter to the nth degree. The visit of the two princes could not be merely a coincidence. Their liberalism was palpably a blind and their real mission revealed. They were after the claw.

Yet the claw was with Tao Chan. It could not be possible that Remsden had regained it. He had literally fled from Peking. It was almost absurd to think there was another relic like it. McNeill was positive there was not. Even if there was, the possession of it—the gift of it to the museum would be as deadly. The interview did not ring true to McNeill. It might have been reported correctly, but what did an American newspaperman know of the subtleties of the Oriental mind? No matter what story Remsden might have coined as to his obtaining possession of the relic, to exhibit such an object of reverence to the princes would be, in their eyes, little short of an insult—a sacrilege. They must surely know all about what had happened at the temple.

While Americans might think little of a Chinese museum having on show specimens of early American culture or crudeness, the claw had been imbedded for unrecorded centuries in the heart of all that was Chinese. It was interwoven with the very essence of ancestor worship. It was holy. No American who had not lived years in China could ever hope to see the differences of thought in such an affair. The racial ideas of the two nations were thousands of years apart. Even Remsden could not properly sense what McNeill felt.

Now the claw was in the museum and Remsden, in his blind pomposity, was elevated to the pinnacle he had been willing to spend so much—to risk so much—to obtain. But, in the eyes of the princes, for all their affectation of Occidental ideas, Remsden was a profaner of shrines, a robber of China's holy of holies. McNeill had to admit that the museum must have the claw, though how this had happened was a riddle hard to solve.

What would be the next move? pondered McNeill. An attempt to get hold of the claw, or swift and horrible revenge upon Helen, her stepfather and, perhaps, himself, if they knew of his presence in New York.

McNeill strove to unravel what might be in the minds of the two princes and then he started north for the Remsdens. It was vital that he should find out just what had occurred—what Remsden had done—where the claw came from. He wondered whether Helen had been present at the reception. The early evening editions came out, but there was nothing more in them. A Wall Street magnate had collapsed, and the market was in jeopardy. The Chinese princes were eclipsed, Remsden forgotten.

THE East Nineties reached and the house located, McNeill sent in his card by a serving man who elevated his eyebrows the slightest bit as he pronounced the name and then, ushering McNeill into a reception room, said—

"I'll see if Miss Remsden is at home, sir."

McNeill heard a door shut somewhere down the hall. Then he caught faint echoes of a voice he recognized as Remsden's. The man came back, demurely apologetic.

"Miss Remsden is not at home, sir. Gone out of town for a few days. Mr. Remsden said he would see you some other time, sir, regretting that he is very busy just now, sir. Yes, sir. I thank you."

McNeill had done nothing to render the man grateful and he went out to his still waiting taxi a little hurt, a great deal disappointed, and much more worried. At his hotel a note was awaiting him that had been brought by special messenger. It read:


Your flowers were beautiful and it was very thoughtful of you to send them. I hope I am going to see you soon, but father seems for some reason opposed at present to your coming to the house.

I am sure, however, that there will soon come an opportunity for thanking you in person better than I can by this brief note.

Sincerely yours,

And the note was dated that afternoon and superscribed—

This Afternoon,
At Home.

"So that is how the wind blows?" said McNeill sotto voce. "The old boy thinks I'll bawl him out whatever yarn he puts up about getting the claw. For that I'm to be lied to and refused admittance. We'll see about that. I wonder if the fool thinks he is not in actual danger?"

He dressed for his lonely dinner for the sheer pleasure of wearing clothes long foreign to him, and the head waiter, recognizing an out-of-the-ordinary person in his appearance, gave him a good table just the right distance from the music and not far from where the Chinese princes were eminently enjoying an Occidental menu.

They were with a party of American men and women, the latter exploiting foreign magnates to their own gratification. No one seemed to look his way and he lingered over his own carefully chosen meal after the eastern royalty had left. His tip duly impressed his waiter, as did his word of thanks for service. The man lingered.

"I beg your pardon, sir," he said, "but the man who waited on them foreign chaps wanted to find out your name. Of course I didn't know it sir, but——?"

"He could easily have got it, I suppose. Thanks."

"Ever been there, sir? China, I mean. I've got a cousin in Shanghai who sells sewing-machines. Doing well, too."

"Yes, I've been there. He should do well. Reserve this table for me tomorrow night, will you?"

"Yes, sir."

So one of the princes, or both, had been interested in him. Why? McNeill cogitated over that a long time that night before he went to sleep. And, in the morning, he fancied he began to see the answer.

The claw was to the fore in the papers once more. The museum had been broken into some time between two and three o'clock. Only the vigilance of the special watchmen had prevented serious vandalism. The intruders were masked. Only a glimpse had been caught of them in the Oriental gallery where the claw of the dragon king, presented by the newly elected president, was deposited. A protective agency man, felt-shod, had seen the marauders bending over the case in which the claw had been placed. He shouted and fired as the burglars rushed for an open window from which the netting had been removed. Two other watchmen had rushed to his assistance and a general alarm was turned in.

Blood was found on the windowsill, showing that the bullet of the watchman had been well aimed. Traces of a ladder, presumably of the extension variety, were found in the turf below the windows. It was said that a swift car had been seen breaking the speed limits in the vicinity of the museum. The police believed they had an important clew. Special precautions were to be taken to safeguard the curio.

Prince Liu Chi could not be reached this morning, the paper stated, having retired, but his secretary announced the sincere regrets of both their highnesses at the occurrence, coupled with an expression of thanks that the attempt had failed and a hope that the robbers would be given over to the justice of American law and order.

The telephone rang as McNeill was reading over the article the second time. It was Helen Remsden's voice he recognized.

"Can you come up here, right away?" she asked, and her voice quivered with anxiety. "Father is dreadfully upset and wants to see you as soon as possible."

"I'm starting now," McNeill answered.

"Wants to make me his burden-bearer once more, I suppose," McNeill told himself as he hastily finished his dressing. "Well, I'm not going without breakfast for his sake."


SOMETHING had surely happened to Howard Remsden. Gone was his attempt at patronizing McNeill, gone was his smug assurance. The man seemed to have shrunk like a balloon from which enough gas has escaped to make the outline flabby. His florid complexion was blotched and there were sagging pouches under his eyes, which themselves held a constant appeal. Something had evidently frightened Remsden badly and he clung to McNeill's hand as would a despairing swimmer to the rescuer.

McNeill was not particularly sorry for him and he did not pretend to be. It was the request of Helen Remsden and the look in her eyes that proclaimed him her champion, that made him more than barely civil to her stepfather. Moreover, whatever peril faced him included her. For his own, he was not bothering just then.

"I want you to read this first, Neill," said Remsden. "I am not good at Chinese script, as you know; then I'll tell you everything. They are after the claw!"

He lowered his voice as a servant entered the library where they were closeted, a magnificent room of carved paneling, carved furniture and gorgeous Oriental hangings and rugs.

"The men have come about putting up the bars, sir," said the servant, the same man who had refused McNeill permission to see Miss Remsden the day before.

Neill held nothing against him for obeying orders—a flunkey must. He when his master tells him, he supposed—and today there was a deference in the man's manner toward the visitor that showed that he was universally regarded in the Remsden household as the man of the hour.

"Tell 'em to begin with my bedroom and Miss Remsden's, Jackson," said Remsden. "I'm having the windows all barred," he said. "The house is otherwise protected but, one never knows."

The hands of the collector and new president of the Philological Museum were visibly trembling. His cocksureness had evaporated but McNeill could not resist getting in one dig.

"Even in America?" he asked.

Remsden reddened.

"Even in America," he admitted. "There are subtle forces at work, McNeill. I feel them. Those two princes——"

He shuddered and passed the scroll of ricepaper that had been fluttering in his nervous hands across to McNeill.

"I found this pinned to my coverlet this morning," he said. "Pinned by this."

He took from a drawer of the massive desk at which he was sitting a pin of soft gold, exquisitely carved in the shape of a dragon.

"The imperial dragon," he said. "Six-clawed! How could it have come there, McNeill? My servants might have been bribed, but they could not lie to me successfully, and the door to my room was locked and bolted. I had locked the shutters of my windows on the outside. I had searched my room before I went to bed. I have been all nerves lately—since yesterday. But there it was."

He went with dragging heels to a sideboard and helped himself to brandy and soda, offering some to McNeill, who, studying the scroll, refused with a shake of his head.

"Want me to read it aloud?" he asked Remsden.


The hesitation in his voice was like that of a prisoner about to hear a death warrant. McNeill studied over the hieroglyphs once more.

"This is a fairly exact translation," he premised.

"Time holds the eternal balances,
But man may weight the scales.
A maid and a flower—both are beautiful.
Yet, when the wind blows from the East,
Lo, they perish as straws in the furnace!"

"The wind—from the East—from China!" groaned Remsden. "The maid, that means Helen!"

There was a real note of anguish in his voice that surprized McNeill. He had not thought that Remsden was capable of such genuine affection for the girl. He himself plainly understood the subtle threat and his jaw set hard before he took up the reading:

"Who shall stay the hand of the Reaper?
Only he who hath a clear conscience need not fear him.
Yet restitution may purge the soul,
But the path of the perverse one shall be sown with knives.
Wo, wo unto him who mocks the ghosts of a thousand generations!
The gods are great—and awful is their vengeance!
They strike, and we see not whence comes the blow, nor when.
Neither do their hearts soften to the stubborn evil-doer.
Terror shall go down with him into the Place of Shadows!"

"Well?" asked Remsden. "What do you make of it?"

"It is not time for me to talk yet," said McNeill. "I want some explanations from you. To save your stepdaughter from the fanatic priests, I took back the claw to the temple, not with any eagerness on your part, at that. I saw the claw turned over to the priest and I returned with Helen—with Miss Remsden. Now, in New York, I read that you have presented the claw to the museum and now, for the second time, you tell me that she is in jeopardy on account of it, and on account of your own infernal ambition," he added grimly.

"Now, Remsden, you concealed from me your first depredations from the temple. Don't hide anything from me this time. I warn you that if your stepdaughter's life hangs by a thread, as I believe it does, yours is still closer to annihilation."

He saw in the dilated eyes of Remsden that he, too, realized this. It was not terror for his stepdaughter as much as for himself that had shaken him. She was a pawn seized in the game whose capture left him, the king, open to attack.

"Now then," McNeill went on, "is this claw you have given the museum another, inferior specimen that somewhere you have got hold of or is it a fake that you have perpetrated after having to restore the original. And what cock-and-bull story have you foisted off on the museum concerning it? If it is so, while the princes, knowing the true claw safe and sound, have laughed at you and all America in their Oriental sleeves, you have nevertheless exposed yourself as the man who ravished their sacred shrine, and now they preshadow their revenge.

"Or, is there something deeper? Whatever it is, come clean with it. Helen, whom I love, is in danger. I am included in all likelihood. They tried to bowstring me in California. As for yourself, your death is certain unless intervention comes. And it will not be a pleasant death, Remsden, for all your vaunt of New York police protection, for all your steel bars, I am the only one who might help you, who must help you, for Helen's sake. But you must tell me the truth—the whole truth and nothing but the truth."

Remsden moistened his lips. Once more he lowered his voice to a whisper, took a long sip of the brandy and water and glanced fearfully about the room.

"It is the original," he said. "The claw in the museum, I mean."

McNeill's jaw began to protrude and his forehead to knit. Remsden hurried on:

"I'll tell you everything, McNeill. It's due you, in a way, I'll grant that. Of course you came out all right. There was no chance of a slip, and I offered you extra compensation for the risk.

"WHEN I told you in Peking that I didn't have the claw and couldn't get it for two days, it was because I had entrusted it to a Chinese jeweler for duplication. A wonderful craftsman, the only man in China, I think, who could have copied it, and you know what wonders the Orientals are at duplication. I had to pay him an enormous sum to overcome his superstitions—almost as much as I paid Fung-Ti in the first place—but he did it. He brought the two to me at the Imperial——"

"I saw the man," said McNeill shortly. "I thought you had referred it to him for an opinion. Go on."

"The facsimile was perfect. I couldn't have known them apart and I made the closest examination. I doubt if the old craftsman himself would have known the difference, once they were juggled, if I hadn't taken the precaution to impregnate the original with ambergris. The perfume sank into the jade and the claw, and some of it still clings. The copy, of course, was unscented."

He sat back with a glint of satisfaction on his features at the cleverness he had shown, but this faded at the sight of McNeill's face.

"So you deliberately sent me back to the Hoang Lung with a duplicate when Helen's life was hanging in the balance! Her honor, the prospect of horrible degradation and torture all depended on it—not to speak of my own safety or my own honor. I swore to Tao Chan that I had kept faith with him. Remsden, there are no words that I am capable of to tell you what I think of you—a man so besotted by his own puny chance for fame that he would——"

"I tell you there was no chance of a slip. The two could not be told apart."

"And what if I had been delayed upon the trip? Your master-craftsman, whose dread you thought you had bought over with your gold, was still the slave of his superstitions. We met him hurrying to Hoang Lung to confess to the trickery. I thought he was merely bearing the news of the theft and laughed at the poor fool. He was death incarnate riding to our destruction! Twenty-four hours after he had passed us Tao Chan knew what you had done.

"I wouldn't give the seed of a dried fig for your life, Remsden, for all your bars and your protection. You have deserved the death of Fung-Ti, in my estimation, you vile imitation of a pariah! If it wasn't that your dirty chicanery involved Helen I would beat you to a pulp and leave this house in the sure knowledge that, if you don't die of heart failure from cowardice, it is because the gods they write of in this script have reserved you for something more appropriate in the way of punishment."

He had risen and was towering over the crumpled Remsden, who was whining in his chair.

"Don't go back on me, McNeill! For Helen's sake! I did not dream of the jeweler's going to Hoang Lung.

"The lives of the three of us are in jeopardy. Yours is forfeit."

"There must be some way out, McNeill—some way."

"There is one chance—to make restitution of the claw. It is possible they may make terms—may keep them. I can see these two princes. They have evidently been communicated with by cable from China. For all their avowal of modern thought, they have still to play politic! at home. I have reason to believe that they can be treated with."

"Yes, I think so. But I can't give them back the claw, McNeill."

"Why not?"

Remsden gulped the rest of his liquor. A stubborn look was on his face.

"Because I can't, and I won't. I've been upset a bit. That paper, and something that happened yesterday—but, —— it, this is America and bigger men than I have been safeguarded for years against greater perils. I'll—I'll go to sea, if necessary, and stay there. I have my own yacht. I'll take Helen with me. You can come along too, if you are so afraid of the vengeance of Tao Chan or whatever his name is. But I won't give it up."

Back of the man's bluster, that yet was not all bluff, for it was backed by determination, McNeill read accurately the reason for his stiffening. He would not sacrifice his own presidency, so long coveted. In all probability it had been obtained by his promise of the relic to the museum. Such arrangements were not uncommon. To take back the claw would mean his resignation, an awkward explanation, perhaps making him the laughing stock of the scientific world. Far rather would Remsden sacrifice any one near and dear to him, even run the chance of death for himself.

"I am not afraid," said McNeill. "It is quite possible that you may be able to safeguard yourself for a time, but I am going to do one thing. I am going to convince Prince Liu Chi and Prince Ten Shin of the absolute innocence of Helen and myself in this matter. After that you can do as you please. If I can't convince them I shall give out the true story of the claw."

"Ah-ha! To whom? The press? Do you think they would believe you—take the word of a penniless adventurer against Howard Remsden? I would say you were attempting to blackmail me."

"You would be very sorry if you did, Remsden," replied McNeill quietly. "Very sorry, I assure you, but there is no use wrangling. I'll see the princes. As for yourself, you seem to have changed your attitude since I arrived. It may be the brandy or perhaps your nerves react swiftly. If I can get what I deem satisfactory assurance from Liu Chi and Ten Shin as to the safety of your stepdaughter and myself, why, you can take your own measures for protection. They may be quite sufficient, if expensive. Good morning."

"Hold on a minute, McNeill. There is no good wrangling, as you say. I'm getting on a bit. Never used to know what nerves were, like you. It's indigestion; that's what it is. But you'll let me know how you come out with the princes, won't you?"

Neill reflected. It would give him a good reason for coming back—a chance to see Helen.

"You said something happened yesterday," he said. "At the meeting when you gave your address, I suppose. What was it?"

"Doubtless I exaggerated it," said Remsden.

The colossal conceit and egoism of the man had already restored him from the fright caused by the finding of the paper pinned to his counterpane. Now a shadow of fear was visible. He hesitated.

"It was awkward—unexpected," he began, "I mean the presence in New York of Liu Chi and Ten Shin. Then some of the committee asked them to be present and the press took it up. It was embarrassing. I had to change the talk I had prepared in some measure."

Remsden got fiery red under McNeill's shrewd look.

"But it went off well enough until it came to meeting the princes. I say well enough, though I had felt all through my speech that they were laughing at me—you know what I mean, McNeill, those ivory faces, motionless, the smooth lids that don't open like a white man's, they just slit apart and you see their black eyes laughing at you, like mocking devils. And, when they shook hands, it was like touching the skin of a snake!

"'Hands across the sea,' that's what Liu Chi said, 'we are not so far apart, Mr. Remsden, after all.' That was a threat, all right—a touch of the velvet glove. Nothing of the hatchetman method about those two slick yellow devils, McNeill. And they smiled when they handled the claw. I had a wild idea that they might try to claim it. I would never have made the presentation if I had known of their presence in the country, but they just smiled with their eyes and gave it back to Forsythe, our curator, who was watching them as he does every one, even me, with the eyes of a hawk. The gift belongs to the museum and he is responsible. Every one is a possible thief in his eyes."

"I suppose," commented McNeill, "that all ancient curios may be styled stolen goods. The dead and their habitations have been ravished of jewels; temples of their carvings and inscriptions——"

"That's it exactly, Neill," broke in Remsden. "That's the point of view you must take. Science must not be judged, however, by the rules applied to the living. I do not consider myself a thief but a——"

"A benefactor." The sarcasm was lost.

"It was the way the prince said 'we are not so far apart,' that impressed me. They are both in it. They mean to get it. They were at the bottom of the attempted robbery last night."

"If it had been possible for the duplicated claw to get across," said McNeill, "they might have made a shift. That would have eased matters. But it would take some powerful influence to make Tao Chan let even the copy go. The shrine has worshipers and he will not let the common people know of the substitution. It would spell peril for him to be without the fetish.

"But I will let you know the result of my interview. Now, for my own business. I would like to see Miss Helen. I might tell you that those affairs of mine are no longer in the air. They are being exploited with ample capital and protection."

"I am glad to hear it, glad to hear it, I am sure. Wish you every success." Remsden touched a bell. "Tell Miss Helen that Mr. McNeill would like to see her, Jackson."

McNEILL found Helen Remsden in her own parlor. Thankful that she was not the type that required reservations, he told her frankly that there was a certain menace concerning the claw. That her stepfather had fallen in her estimation was evident. She had thought the present he had made to the museum was merely a clever substitution and, though she said nothing as to the risk to which they had been exposed at the Hoang Lung temple, her manner conveyed her opinion of the man who had prompted it.

"I think I can remove the menace," said McNeill, "but your father——"

"My stepfather," she corrected pointedly.

"Your stepfather must be made to return the claw."

"He will not do that," she affirmed. "He would have to degrade himself in his own light. The museum would have to acknowledge having been deceived. He would lose his presidency."

"I think there may be a way out," said McNeill. "I am to come again tomorrow. Shall I see you?"

"Certainly. I shall be glad."

McNeill went off happily, but he had all his wits about him and he did not fail to see a man, who had been lounging at the corner, slouchingly follow. Neill had dismissed his taxi and now he swung into the park. His shadow persisted and McNeill led him on at a smart pace, turning a corner abruptly and hiding behind some shrubbery. He saw the man go by and saw also, stamped on his skull-like face, the evidence of opium.

"I shall have an interesting interview with our Oriental potentates, I fancy," he told himself as he caught a bus to return to his hotel.

His room was made up. Pinned to the pillow-sham was a gold dragon, six-clawed, made into a stick pin. McNeill shrugged his shoulders.

"Nothing small about their methods," he said aloud, then deliberately removed the pearl from the scarf and replaced it with the emblem of the dragon-king.


THE suites allotted to Princes Liu Chi and Ten Shin were costly according to their capaciousness, running the full length of one corridor of the famous New York hostelry. A private elevator was part of the equipment and to this McNeill, having arranged his appointment, was ushered by the urbane secretary of the imperial entourage that, despite their affectation of democracy, still retained the attributes of Chinese aristocracy and accompanying wealth.

A Chinese boy was elevator pilot and, once on the floor of the suite, America gave place to the Flowery Kingdom. There was no suggestion of anything Occidental, save in the electric fixtures, disguised beneath oiled-silk lanterns, and the telephones. Either brought with them, or secured from New York Oriental merchants, the furniture, the rugs, the hangings—every detail were those of an imperial apartment in the Forbidden City.

The secretary, in American clothes, disappeared in the ante-chamber and presently a giant Chinaman, whose silken garb bore the insignia of the royal house, ushered McNeill into a room where Liu Chi and Ten Shin, arrayed in magnificent brocades, rose to meet him and bade him be seated upon a lounge tapestried with sprawling dragons.

McNeill still wore the dragon pin, dressed as he was for the morning appointment, and a compact automatic was ready to his hand. It would not be hard to dispose of him, he reflected, if he gave them the chance. He had come up in a private elevator. No one would know when he went down, if he ever did, save a Chinaman. His body could be smuggled out in some trunk and got rid of quietly. McNeill was not morbid about this possibility. It was quite on the cards and he prepared for it as best he could.

"I expect an important call in some fifteen minutes," he said after the due ceremonial of greeting had been gone through. "Would it be too much if it was transmitted to me here?"

Liu Chi smiled and gave orders in his own language to that effect.

"To what do we owe the pleasure of this visit, Mr. McNeill? We have heard that you have visited our country, have, in fact, lived there for several years. That is interesting. You will realize, for one thing, the difficulty of assimilation that besets a land like ours in taking up Occidental thought and ideas, when my countrymen are so steeped with ignorance and superstition. But we must do the best we can."

The idea of these two imperious beings, bred of a thousand years of despotic measure, being seriously inclined to simplicity of any sort that bespoke equality, struck McNeill as absurd. It would take many generations for China to become a true republic. Liu Chi and Ten Shin were merely going with the current and taking good care of themselves meanwhile. He decided to match Oriental guile with Yankee-Irish bluntness of attack.

"I have come here to tell you a straight tale," he commenced and recited, omitting no detail, the history of the claw from the time he had first met Remsden and, attracted by Helen, agreed to act as guide and interpreter. Through it all the two princes sat like statues, immutable, their eyes only shown by narrow bars of glittering jet between their narrowed lids. So did the imperial mandarins sit in justice. At the close Ten Shin started to exchange a few words with his cousin, but McNeill interrupted:

"I understand the Mandarin dialect," he said.

Ten Shin and Liu Chi gravely nodded an acknowledgment.

"That is very honorable of you," said the latter. "And honor does not dwell in unclean places."

But, for all their politeness, McNeill believed the thing had been a test. Anyway he had scored.

"Your tale is well told," said Liu Chi. "Yet we can not think why you should think us especially interested. The museums of England, of France, of all countries hold relics of past races. Our own country has long been overrun by conquerors; it is the most polyglot of nations, of mixed blood, mixed faiths. 'The old order changeth, yielding place to new,' as Tennyson writes. And we, my cousin and myself, are of the new order.

"We can not hold any responsibility for Mr. Remsden's emotions. The Hoang Lung is a far-reaching organization, linked by mysticism as it is. It is possible that some of their members may have attempted to threaten Mr. Remsden and play upon his fears, but, of a surety, we do not wish the claw. We were curious to see it, yes, but there our interest ceases. We came here for things concerning this generation and those to come, Mr. McNeill, long before Mr. Remsden visited the temple of Hoang Lung. You must be aware of that.

"You seem to make it very plain that neither Miss Remsden nor yourself were implicated in this matter or in the substitution. I sincerely trust that, if any members of the Hoang Lung are in doubt as to this, they may be convinced before they carry out any threats, if they so intend."

McNeill, listening to the smooth syllables, with all the difficult r's sounded perfectly, knew that Liu Chi was lying, but he could do nothing. They also thought that he had bed concerning the innocence of Helen and himself in the affair, or they did not care. Ten Shin took up the talk.

"We can not pretend to influence such of our countrymen who may still cling to superstition," he said. "We have deliberately severed ourselves from such. We shall hope, of course, to teach them better in time. We are sorry we can do nothing for you, glad to have listened to you. We would suggest that, for Mr. Remsden's peace of mind, he might open up negotiations for the return or exchange of the claw, speaking merely as those having knowledge of the workings of the Chinese trend of thought. One unfortunate national characteristic of ours is revenge, particularly when allied to faiths, however loosely founded.

"You evidently, from the style of the communication conveyed to Mr. Remsden, have to do with a clever mentality. I would suggest that any reprisal that might be intended would be divided into two parts—punishment and insistence upon the return of the true relic. As long as Mr. Remsden seems the key, the only key to that return, so long will he be safe from punishment. As to the reference to Miss Remsden, speaking again from the general understanding of my more bigoted and ignorant countrymen, I fear, I greatly fear that, even if we could interfere, it would be too late."

"Just exactly what do you mean?" asked McNeill.

The absolutely unemotional, even pronunciation, like drops of water falling on the bar of a xylophone, the mask-like faces, the atmosphere of the room with its dim lights, masked windows, a hint of incense, had gradually chilled him. These men were pitiless.

"Mr. Remsden was warned yesterday."

Then Helen had been already struck in some mysterious way. McNeill's fingers gripped his automatic. His muscles tensed.

A telephone sounded.

"Your call, I think, Mr. McNeill."

He had asked Helen to call him, partly to assure her that he was working in her interests, partly as a bluff to the princes. His spirit lightened as he heard her voice.

"And I suppose I have you to thank for the magnificent roses," she was saying. "You mustn't be so extravagant."

"It was not I," he answered. "But I'll see you this afternoon."

He hung up the receiver in relief . He was certain that the two princes were watching him covertly, as cats might watch a mouse. But Helen was safe, despite their covert threats.

Again he tried the direct method.

"If I succeed in getting Mr. Remsden to relinquish the claw," he said, "could I count upon your influence to have the news transmitted to those most interested—to Tao Chan for example?"

"You may be assured, Mr. McNeill, that we will do all that we can. For your own warning, if you so regard the pin you found on your pillow, we can hardly better recommend you than to the wonderful protective methods of your great city, many of which we hope to ultimately adopt or adapt. Before we leave we hope to give a banquet to those with whom we have come in close contact. May I hope that you will be present?"

DISMISSED, down in the private elevator and back into America again, McNeill went chagrined to his own room. He knew that he had failed, that he had touched only the shell of the consciousness of the princes. Not one shade of doubt, of surprize, of anger or pity, not one atom of any emotion had they shown. He might as well have spoken to the lacquered images in the temple at Hoang Lung. But from that minute he would watch the safety of Helen. She must be made to understand her danger. The infinite sarcasm of his reception burned within him. He had been as impotent as a small boy blowing bubbles at the feet of the great statue of Buddha at Laiting.

He was before his time at the Remsden residence, but Helen was expecting him. The roses she had spoken of were in a tall vase of metal—gorgeous American Beauty roses several feet tall.

"The most exquisite, royal things," she said. "And the thorniest! But you have to pay for them by the length of the stem, I understand. I thought they were from you and I was going to scold you for the pricks I got in arranging them."

"I wish I had thought of them," said McNeill regretfully. "And I am very sorry for the damaged fingers. Was there no card with them?"

"No. I looked carefully. But they came from your hotel."

McNeill looked thoughtful for a moment.

"I have promised to see your father before I go," he said. "I failed to convince the princes. They pleaded lack of interest and, in almost the same breath, emphasized the threat. You have got to be careful of your comings and goings, Helen. Promise me that you will?"

She noted his first free use of her name as she blushed and then answered:

"Very well, Neill, what do you suggest?"


THE next day the princes went to Washington by invitation to see the sights of the Capital City. Their suite was still reserved, but McNeill breathed a little more easily. The menace hanging over Helen seemed less imminent though he could neither dismiss nor fathom the suggestion of Ten Shin that it had already fallen, and it had been an assertion rather than a suggestion. But the days went by and she appeared as blooming as ever, while Remsden himself completely regained his poise.

No national president was better safeguarded than was he night and day; the protection extending to his stepdaughter. He no longer affected to hold McNeill at a distance. The Irishman's polite covering of the contempt in which he held Remsden may have enraged him, but it also forced him to at least an equal politeness, as a lion will go through tricks it hates from fear of the tamer and his whip.

There were few allusions to the claw. Twice McNeill urged Remsden to do something toward the restoration of the claw, to communicate with the princes at their hotel in Washington, but, confident in the power of his little army of protectors, he stubbornly refused to discuss the question.

It was a week after the departure of Liu Chi and his cousin that Helen made a complaint that struck fear into the heart of McNeill, ever alert for danger against the girl he loved and, who, he had reason to believe, returned his love. In the shadow that he still feared hung over them all, he had not spoken to her openly, but there were a hundred signs that cheer even despairing lovers, and McNeill was far from being despondent.

He had definitely made up his mind to force Remsden's hand upon the princes' return, scheduled for the tenth day after they left for Washington. Their banquet had been set for the following evening and all New York, especially that part of its social center that had not been invited, was agog over the rumored extravagance of the affair.

It was to be an Arabian Nights entertainment, it was said. There would be magic wrought in more ways than one, and all the fabled magnificence of Aladdin's gardens would fade before the spectacle of the feast to be spread in the private suite of their imperial highnesses as the society columns, still secretly delighting in titles, styled these two Chinamen who claimed to be representatives of a new republic. Guests had been asked to attend in Oriental garb, and all the glamour of a fancy-dress affair fascinated the fashion-writers and stimulated the curiosity and envy of those not fortunate enough to receive invitations.

Remsden, rather in fear than bravado, McNeill thought, had accepted for himself and Helen, and Neill himself had likewise signified his intention of being present. Helen and he were discussing costumes when she presented her finger for his inspection.

"It is numb, Neill," she said. "First it was the upper joint and now it is the second—the same finger I pricked so badly with those roses I thought you sent me. I can't bend it between those two joints at all. Look at it."

As McNeill took the tapering finger a strange fear gripped his heart. The mention of the roses seemed to have promoted the presentiment. Helen's hand was white, well kept, the texture of a gardenia petal, though the tips showed the faint rose-hue of perfect health. The index finger of the right hand was the one she complained about, and McNeill noticed that it was subtly different from the rest.

He could bend it between the first and second joints but there was no reflex action. The nail lacked color and the pinkness of the tip was entirely missing. The flesh was unshriveled, but it had a frozen look; it was like a finger carved in alabaster, a finger of Galatea with all the rest of the beautiful statue come to life.

A tiny, light-brown speck marked where the sharp thorns of the American beauties had punctured the skin and drawn blood. There was a smaller mark lower down, made in the same way. He strove to hide his premonition. He dared not gaze into her face, though presently he would have to force himself to that inspection, he knew quite well.

"How long have you noticed this?" he asked.

"Since the morning after the thorns pricked me," she answered. "I thought nothing of it, but it has steadily grown worse. I asked Dr. Hastings about it and he thought there might be some slight local infection, but it has not swelled; it has simply lost all sensation. He didn't seem to consider it very serious. It is my sewing finger, and I do sew occasionally," she laughed, "so I have noticed it."

"By the way," asked McNeill casually, though he made a strong effort to control his voice, "you never found out who sent you those roses?"

"No—no one has claimed the honor. You are quite sure you didn't leave a standing order, Neill? It would be like you."

"Quite sure. I wouldn't worry about this if I were you. It will probably pass."

"Oh, I won't worry about it. It is probably a matter of circulation. I'll have to be more careful of my diet and cut off candy I suppose."

Neill laughed with her and then, deliberately forcing back all emotion, he proceeded to the test he dreaded.

"Won't you play something?" he asked, steadying his voice.

She went over to the piano and Neill made a point of choosing something that she must play by note. To aid her in this he turned on the piano lights and then settled himself in a chair that gave him a good view of her face, turning it, as she did occasionally, toward him. To the ordinary observer there would have seemed nothing out of the ordinary, save that the face was very fair to look upon with its perfect oval, the scarlet lips and the steady, large eyes beneath curving, delicately penciled brows. It was at these latter that Neill directed his closest attention, though he managed to hide it from her, smiling when he met her gaze.

WHEN he left her that night, his nails had cut deeply into his palms.

"The cowards!" he said. "The curs! And there is no remedy!"

At the hotel he made discreet inquiries at the flower stand—inquiries sped by a jovial talk and augmented with a liberal tip. He traced the flowers. There had been no special attempt to hide their source, save from the lack of a card—a matter easily explained by blaming an underling secretary who would shoulder the responsibility in case of inquiry. They had been ordered by the secretary of the two Chinese princes. A not too unusual compliment from the distinguished foreigners to the daughter of the president of the museum whose soirée they had attended, and who had been placed on the list of guests at their banquet.

The flowers and their deadly thorns had faded and long since been cast away, not to be recovered.

But they had accomplished their purpose. Achieved the deadly end of the fiends who had sent them. How had the Chinese scribe written?

"A maid and a flower—both are beautiful.
Yet, when the wind blows from the East,
Lo, they perish as straws in the furnace!

The wind had blown from the East. Helen was doomed. Doomed with the living death, the White Death of China—leprosy!

McNeill had suspected it in the numbing, thorn-pricked finger, had confirmed it in the slight but unmistakable leonine cast of her brows, a suggestion of furrows and puffed flesh that is one of the symptoms of the disease. Leprosy was infectious and the thorns had been impregnated by the deadly virus. The evidence was destroyed, but the girl was sentenced to a loathsome, ever encroaching dissolution, from which there was no cure. Only a horrible segregation under the law.

Black murder welled up in McNeill, but he forced it down. Remsden was the one to blame primarily and he, too, would be hard hit, for Neill felt that he loved his stepdaughter. As for the Orientals, they had been hit and they had struck back according to their lights. And Helen? His clear brain reeled for a few moments as he contemplated the awful fate ahead of her—a fate that he determined to share as nearly as he would be allowed. Yet there must be, should be, a reckoning. First doctors must be privately consulted, Helen must be persuaded to see them on some pretext, the stiffening of her finger, the lack of circulation, but she must not be allowed to suspect. It would drive a girl of her vitality, her love of life, her sensitiveness, insane.

For himself he could only determine one course. He could bluff up some evidence, confront the princes. To what definite avail he knew not but he must find some vent for his own overmastering fury at the unfair blow. And Remsden should not be spared. His selfish pride should be humiliated. The claw should be returned. Perhaps——


McNEILL had gone up in the private elevator by sheer force of arms. Hiding behind portieres, he had seized the moment when a visitor descended from the suites of Liu Chi and Ten Shin on the night of their coming back from Washington, waited until the man had disappeared and the Chinese operator lounged waiting for a call, and then he had come out, shoved the muzzle of his gun against the Chinaman's blouse and ordered him to ascend.

The secretary met him at the top and to him McNeill applied the same treatment. His lean face, bossed with muscles from his set jaws, aided the imagination of the secretary, who walked before him, death joggling his ribs, into the anteroom and so into the reception room where the two princes sat. This time they were in conventional evening dress, their faces strangely incongruous in the setting.

McNeill faced them with a crisp demand for an audience.

"Certainly," assented Liu Chi with the -briefest glance at his cousin. "But there was, there is no need for violence, Mr. McNeill. You can put that pistol away. We are quite adequately protected."

"That is where you are mistaken," said Neill McNeill. "I do not represent violence, only force, and that is quite necessary. And I am amply backed. I do not give a poppy petal for my own life at the present moment," he went on, speaking in the Mandarin dialect, "save as it may accomplish an end and, if it is wiped out, there are others who possess the actual evidence I am about to present to you."

Again there was that hint of a look, the swift shuttling of agate eyes, but the princes said nothing.

"I do not know how intimate you have become with the workings of American justice—" Neill went on, his voice as cold as ever theirs had sounded—"the justice that you spoke of adapting to your own new republic. But there is such a thing as international law and you have made the mistake of supposing Mr. Remsden to be purely a private citizen without influence at Washington. You can easily assure yourselves of this mistake by discussion with your embassy, I am very certain. He has a great deal of power.

"You affect to disdain the matter of the claw in your affectation of new Chinese policies which you are forced to adopt by the trend of the times in China. You are particularly anxious, not merely to remain upon good terms with the United States and her allies, but also to negotiate a loan of considerable magnitude. This has not been made public and my knowledge of it should show you that I have not been idle and that Mr. Remsden, from whom I obtained the information, is in touch with international affairs.

"You sent some roses to Miss Remsden. I have the full evidence. You will be held responsible for the actions of your secretary, despite any denial he may make. The thorns were impregnated with the virus of leprosy, which was communicated to Miss Remsden, as you hoped, by the pricking of her hand. Those thorns have been subjected to analysis, not thrown away, as you expected. I know the symptoms of leprosy.

"To that and the fact that the virus was so strong as to bring out swiftly those symptoms, is due the fact that the roses were rescued in time. Your rank may keep you from imprisonment, but your failure to make the loan, the general loathing and suspicion that will be cast upon all Chinese diplomacy and personality will not serve to make you popular with your government. The evidence is in the hands of our Secret Service, or will be turned over to them either upon my order or in case I do not leave these rooms unscathed or am in any way interfered with. I have spoken."

McNeill stopped talking, unable to tell from those impassive masks what effect his powerful indictment had made. It was largely bluff. Remsden did have influence and the wires had been busy ever since he had disclosed to Remsden the state of his daughter's health. But they had been unable to recover the roses. Still the cards were hidden and the stakes were big.

"We will converse in English," answered Ten Shin imperturbably. "You have delivered your tirade, Mr. McNeill. If such a misfortune has overtaken Miss Remsden, we can understand your feelings and those of her father, powerless as we may be to avert them."

"Remsden is not her father," said McNeill. "No blood of his is in her veins and she is innocent of any complicity in his affairs."

"She is not his own daughter?"


There was silence for several moments. The two princes seemed to be, in some occult way, transferring thoughts.

"You play a good game, Mr. McNeill," said Liu Chi at last. "And you place your cards on the table, but they are not face up, and some of them may be spurious. I may say, without prejudice to our own disclaimer in this matter, that the question of Chinese vengeance lies largely in the permanent punishment of offenders, even to the third and fourth generation. The fact that Miss Remsden is not of Howard Remsden's own blood is, I should imagine, quite a factor. It is a pity it was not known before—to Tao Chan, for example.

"As for your threats against us, we will dismiss them as quite natural under the circumstances. It is true that China is anxious, through all her representatives, to stand well with America; to prove to your people that we are not utter barbarians, that we can even look at things from the same standpoint of humanity, the principles upon which your country is so deeply founded.

"If you, with Mr. Remsden and Miss Remsden, will attend the banquet to-morrow evening—twenty-four hours will not alter the medical situation—we may be able to assist you. We shall expect Mr. Remsden to come half-way. We accept no responsibility in this. We act merely as mediators. We can understand that Mr. Remsden wishes to, as we say in China, save his face. We can perhaps arrange that also.

"You will convey our sentiments to Mr. Remsden. For yourself: Chinese doctors have long been held up to the ridicule of the western pharmacopœia as believers in charms, users of strange ingredients such as those mentioned by the witches in 'Macbeth.' There may be merit in these things. All diseases of the body are not cured in the body. We are expecting a notable guest. With us he holds great merit as a herbalist though that is not his profession. You shall meet him. And remember—for every virus there is a serum—not always generally known as yet, but we Orientals have our secrets. We can not prolong this interview. We have an appointment."

He clapped his hands and the secretary appeared.

"Show in the gentlemen," ordered Liu Chi.

McNeill, hope affecting him like a palsy, found himself acknowledging introductions to several Americans, some of whom he thought he knew. Soon he found himself on the ground floor, his hope growing. Could it be that the Chinese had found a cure for leprosy?


THE banquet that was to be the talk of New York for many a day had progressed with wonderful éclat. The costumes of the guests, the elaborately bizarre decorations, the strange music, the unusual dishes spiced with a bountiful supply of occidental vintages, the courtesy of the hosts, the exotic atmosphere—all had made the affair a success from the start. Rare souvenirs, not to be priced, had augmented the entente cordiale.

With the cessation of gastronomies came an entertainment of wizardry, of parlor acrobatics, of indoor fireworks, until the bewildered beholders were brought to the tiring point.

Then, at the sound of a gong, a booth was brought in—a hooded tent of silken brocades, and Ten Shin arose.

"Much of which you have so courteously shared with us tonight," he said, "belongs to the past—the passing China soon, we hope, to be revivified with lessons learned from American ingenuity and advancement. But there is one element that always appeals, particularly to the fair sex. That element is the future. A member of our little embassy has arrived today from China, bringing important matters and, while he has been too fatigued from his long and accelerated journey to join us, he has consented to give some manifestation of his skill as a diviner."

There was a murmur of anticipatory delight and again the gong sounded. From behind high curtains four Chinamen, dressed in vivid emerald silk, brought forward a palanquin of brightest scarlet lacquer on which were illuminated golden dragons in raised and lustrous metal work. Six-clawed they were, noted McNeill, tense with the sense of something pregnant. This they placed by the tent and disappeared.

A weird chant, high pitched, nerve thrilling, came from unseen musicians, the shrill piping of the Chinese clarionet and the twang of the gekken. The room was very quiet and the lights grew gradually dim. Then the scarlet curtains of the palanquin glowed fiery red, faint streaks of light appeared through the folds of the tent and a figure emerged from the carriage. It was clad in silk of the vividest yellow and the robes, McNeill noticed, as his fingers gripped those of Helen next to him, were of priestly cut. The figure was squat. In its rotundity it might have been ludicrous, save for a certain dignity that emanated from it and because of that of the two princely hosts. The face, projecting from the folds of the hood, was that of a turtle—was that of Tao Chan, high-priest of the Hoang Lung.

McNeill was not surprized. But he marked the effort Helen made to suppress her feelings of astonishment and, perhaps, of terror, though there was, as he assured her, no fear of anything out of the way happening there with so many American guests present. Yet there was something that thrilled him with a sense of hidden power—of mystery. He glanced at Remsden. Remsden was staring at Tao Chan as he might have looked at a basilisk, his eyes projecting, his lower jaw sagging.

Tao Chan had evidently arrived with the duplicate, leaving some excuse, or perhaps a second replica, behind him. This one was to be exchanged for the original. Everybody's face was to be saved. Helen, by Chinese drugs, to be cured, Remsden to be left as president, and relieved of his Damoclean fate. Only the museum would suffer and be none the worse for it, thought McNeill, knowing other spurious objects venerated there as real.

He, Neill McNeill, had brought this about by taking advantage of China's position as the Sick Man of Asia, looking to America for aid. The princes had come with a dual purpose—to get the claw and to establish friendly relations. Which cause they held the greater McNeill did not venture to imagine. He did not care, feeling certain that the evening would see the end of their troubles unless Remsden proved obstinate. In this case McNeill promised himself that he would devise a little pressure on his own account.

Ten Shin turned to the lady on his right.

"Would you read the future?" he asked her. "I am sure that for you it will be rosy."

Tao Chan had entered the little tent and taken his seat before a stand of dark wood, the legs formed of writhing dragons. There was a dish in front of him.

"You will not be spirited away, I assure you," went on the prince. "I will not guarantee that you will not be enchanted, but turn about is fair play."

The guest laughed nervously at his raillery but consented to enter the tent. The curtains closed and there was only a low murmur to be heard, drowned largely by the rising notes of the orchestra. In less than two minutes the woman came out.

"Your wizard is a flatterer, prince," she said. "I wish I could believe half he promised, though he does not speak very good English."

"He has learned it for the occasion," said Ten Shin gravely.

Liu Chi next asked his dinner partner and she disappeared. McNeill could hear the first visitant answering questions.

"I can't describe it," she replied. "Wait till your turn. He showed me a funny plate first and then—I don't remember really what happened. It was all over so quickly, but he told me a lot of strange things that might come true. I hope so."

"Chinese hypnotism," whispered McNeill to Helen under cover of the chatter. "He read her own wishes. It will be your turn next. Don't be afraid. It is going to help us. I can guess what they are after."

At Liu Chi's request Helen went into the booth, remaining there a little longer than the rest. When she came out she was pale, and McNeill handed her a glass of wine.

"Don't talk now," he said. "Tell us later."

She nodded brightly at him.

"It sounded like good news," she said.

Some of the fairer guests refused; others accepted and the novelty began to wane. Tao Chan pleaded, or pretended to plead, exhaustion, and withdrew in the palanquin. Then the lights went up. Ten Shin arose with a toast to the United States and another orchestra, typically American, broke spiritedly into the "Star Spangled Banner." The brilliant assemblage rose. As the strains died, Liu Chi made his peroration.

"Heliogabalus," he said, "smothered his guests to death with rose petals. Tonight it is my cousin and myself who are smothered with your good-will, but not to death. And, though roses grow in China, we have a more typical flower that bears the charm of sweet forgetfulness—the faculty of dreamless sleep. The lotus! May its petals bring to all of you that boon to end the night."

The canopy above the table divided and a shower of fragrant blossoms fell while all the room was filled with mystical perfume. Laughing, congratulating, the guests departed, the princes standing to bid them farewell.

"We shall see you once more before we leave, I hope," said Ten Shin to McNeill and Helen. Then as they passed on he touched Remsden on the arm.

"A word with you, sir," he said pleasantly, and envious guests marked Remsden as one given special favors.

THE two waited for Remsden in the anteroom. He came to them at last with the face of one who has seen his own ghost—his features twisted like a man who has suffered a stroke. All the way back to the limousine he did not speak but plucked clumsily at his own fingers. At the house he achieved speech with an effort, as if his lingual muscles had suffered paralysis.

"Neill and I will join you when you have taken off your wraps, Helen," he said.

She looked anxiously at him and then nodded.

"In the drawing-room," she replied. The men went into the library. Remsden poured brandy and gulped it down. Then he sank into the cushions of a big chair like a man of ninety.

"What is the matter with Helen, Neill?" he asked thickly.

"Leprosy," answered McNeill bluntly. Remsden clawed at the arms of the chair, gasping for breath and speech.

"My God!" he said. "I never thought—Ten Shin said—he said that—as a bruised plum is to a rotten fruit, as a stained pearl to a bowl of slime, so should my punishment be compared to hers. Oh, my God, Neill!"

"Brace up," snapped McNeill. "What else did he say? About the claw?"

"I am to show it him at the museum tomorrow—Tao Chan I mean. He is to handle it. The princes will be there. We—we may adjust matters. I do not know. I can not trust them. I must see Helen."

McNeill guessed what the adjustment would be. A little legerdemain, such as Wilson had shown in the desert, this time with Tao Chan as the prestidigitator. But had Remsden already been inoculated? How was he to be cured? And Helen?

"There are various degrees of leprosy, of course," he said. "Do you fancy that you are already infected?"

Remsden nodded.

"I know it," he groaned. "Something pricked my palm when I shook hands with Ten Shin, and he smiled when I started. But Helen—Helen has an antidote. I shall receive one tomorrow after——"

"The claws are exchanged," supplied McNeill. "Let us go into the drawing-room."

They found the girl waiting and McNeill, answering a plea in Remsden's eyes, put the question to her:

"What happened in the tent? I can imagine that Tao Chan hypnotized you and questioned you. By so doing he could confirm my statement to the princes of your innocence in the stealing and substitution of the claw. But what did he say that you remember?"

"Why he told me that I had been suffering from some trouble with my hands but that I should soon be entirely well again. He gave me this."

She showed a tiny phial of gray jade wonderfully carven in the shape of a dragon and stoppered with a dragon's claw of gold that held a tiny ball of crystal. Within were some pellets of dull orange color.

"These are to be taken one every hour," she said, "dissolved in hot water. I have already taken one and I can feel a tingling in my numb finger."

She held it out for inspection. Remsden looked at it with a shudder.

"And he said that Mr. Remsden was in danger of sickness that was to be averted by the medicine that he, Tao Chan, would give him tomorrow. Are you to see him tomorrow?"

"Yes," answered Remsden. "Thank God I am. Good night, you two. Good night."

They watched him leave the room, feeble, bowed, a man old before his time.

Then youth turned to youth.